The Sunday Conversation
11:23 am
Sun December 8, 2013

Husband Finding Peace After A Terrorist Attack

Originally published on Sun December 15, 2013 9:58 am

Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.

Several years ago, David Harris-Gershon and his wife Jamie were studying in Israel, where they'd constructed their daily life in ways they hoped would protect them from a terrorist attack. They weren't so fortunate.

"I received a call from somebody who I did not know, who basically said there'd been an explosion at the university," Harris-Gershon tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "I turned on the news and I immediately knew what had happened."

The phone rang again, and he was notified Jamie was in the emergency room. He rushed to the hospital.

"I was brought before a woman who I didn't recognize, and I didn't know why I'd been brought before her until she said my name," he says. Jamie was badly burned, but lived. The two friends she'd been sitting with at the cafe did not.

"After her recovery, we returned to the States," Harris-Gershon says, and his wife "achieved an amazing level of recovery through therapy." But eventually, he began to suffer symptoms of PTSD as well, which made it clear that he was more than a caretaker for his wife — he was a victim, too.

Harris-Gershon tried therapy, but it didn't help, so he decided to face the facts of the attack head-on. He learned that the man behind the attack, Mohammad Odeh, had been captured and jailed.

"He reportedly told Israeli authorities that he was sorry, that he was remorseful that so many people had died in the attack," Harris-Gershon says.

That remark didn't make sense to Harris-Gershon, so he decided to travel to confront Odeh. Jamie wanted nothing to do with it, though she was supportive. After Israeli authorities denied his request to talk with Odeh, Harris-Gershon tracked down Odeh's family, and they agreed to meet.

"This had traumatized them as well," Harris-Gershon says. "They were [a] moderate, middle-class family that didn't know what Mohammad was doing. They had no idea that he was involved with Hamas. They were broken, and I think we both needed to try and treat this in some way."

It was a cathartic conversation for both sides. The family welcomed Harris-Gershon "with open arms." They got to know each other, and "it was a conversation about how much both of us desired peace."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to another war in the Middle East, steeped in generations of discrimination, fear and violence.

DAVID HARRIS-GERSHON: We kind of constructed these false borders within which we decided to live. You know, we would go to cafes but only if they had armed guards. And we would go to movies but only if they were matinees where there weren't a lot of people. And we kind of assumed, as I think a lot of people did, that Hebrew University, this integrated place of study, with both Jews and Israelis and Palestinians, was kind of off-limits, and obviously, that wasn't the case.

MARTIN: This is David Harris-Gershon. He and his wife are American, and several years ago, they were studying in Israel. As many people do in that part of the world, they structured their life to avoid getting caught up in some kind of attack. But they were, and his wife almost died. Harris-Gershon became obsessed with the man who carried out the bombing and tried to find him.

He wrote a book about the experience called "What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?" David Harris-Gershon is our Sunday Conversation.

HARRIS-GERSHON: I received a call from somebody who I did not know, who basically said, you know, there'd been an explosion at the university. And I turned on the news and I immediately knew what had happened.

And I immediately got a call again, said my wife had been injured and I was needed at the hospital immediately. I, in a panic state, immediately ran out to the street, grabbed a taxi, got to the university, was able to somehow push through the emergency room doors. And I was brought before a woman who I didn't recognize, and I didn't know why I had been brought before her until she said my name. And at that point I immediately knew that it was my wife.

MARTIN: So as you say, your wife was badly burned in the attack. But she did live. A couple of her friends who she was with did not survive that bombing.

HARRIS-GERSHON: That's right. The bomb was placed on the table right next to my wife and she just happened to be bending beneath it the moment the blast went off and our two friends with whom she was sitting were killed as well as seven others.

MARTIN: How did you and your wife talk about what happened to her? How did life change obviously, it must have for you, after the attack?

HARRIS-GERSHON: Well, after her recovery, we returned to the States. You know, she was able to achieve an amazing level of recovery through therapy. And we talked about the attack, but whenever we would engage, it would usually be in terms of Jamie being a victim and me being a caretaker. And it wasn't until I began to suffer from PTSD-like symptoms that it became clear that I was a victim as well.

MARTIN: What did that look like?

HARRIS-GERSHON: I, you know, I was a first-year high school teacher when we came back and, you know, that's dramatic enough just teaching high school. You know, add on to that the fact that I began to have panic attacks. I would hyperventilate in the classroom and have to leave immediately and go to the bathroom. I couldn't sleep that night. I was an insomniac. And I mean it got to the stage really, where it was clear that I needed to do something because I was falling apart.

MARTIN: So how does this idea take root for you, this idea that you need to pursue the man who perpetrated this bombing, this man, Mohamed Odeh?

HARRIS-GERSHON: Well, what happened is I tried therapy and it didn't help at all and, you know, compartmentalizing hadn't helped. And so I decided to confront it, to just try and learn everything I could about the attack. And when I did I immediately learned that Mohamed Odeh was captured three weeks after the attack by Israeli authorities and the Associated Press article said that when he was captured he reportedly told Israeli authorities that he was sorry, that he was remorseful that so many people had died in the attack.

And, you know, that disjointed piece of information just didn't make sense to me. You know, he was a member of Hamas and intuitively it clicked within me that somehow perhaps, on a personal level, maybe in order to overcome this I had to go back and I had to try and confront him and ask him why.

MARTIN: That's an unusual response to observe that, his reaction and say I need to go is person and look him the eye. What did your wife think?

HARRIS-GERSHON: My wife didn't want anything to do with this process. I mean she had gone through her own. But she was also supportive. And I think the reason she was supportive is because she saw what desperate straits I was in personally from a psychological standpoint.

MARTIN: So what happened? You make this decision. You seek him out, or at least his family. Ultimately, his family agreed and welcomed you into their home?

HARRIS-GERSHON: Yeah. I mean I tried through the Israeli prison service to meet with him, and those were, those efforts were thwarted. And I just made contact, by chance, with a human rights activist who knew Silwan, the neighborhood in East Jerusalem where he's from and knew the family, and actually delivered a letter for me, on my behalf, basically explaining who I was and that I didn't want revenge and I just wanted to understand who they were and who Mohamed was. And they invited me to Jerusalem with open arms.

MARTIN: Were you surprised in that moment? Did part of you think, I'm pursuing this, but it's not really going to happen?

HARRIS-GERSHON: Looking back, I was actually surprised. You know, I was grateful and I understood why they wanted me to be there because this had traumatized them as well. This was - I learned about them, and they were a moderate, middle-class family who didn't know what Mohamed was doing. They had no idea that he was involved with Hamas. And, you know, they were broken, and I think we both needed to try and treat this in some way.

MARTIN: So how did that meeting go? How did his family react to you? You say it was cathartic for you. You have any sense of whether or not that was a conversation they welcomed having?

HARRIS-GERSHON: Yeah, it was. I mean, I know that right before the meeting, both of us were terrified. I mean I did not know what my response was going to be. And I know that they were concerned that I perhaps was going to be coming to murder them in an act of revenge. But the moment I got there and they welcomed me with open arms, and it was so warm and bright and our conversation, you know, revolved mainly around just getting to know each other and who we were and where we came from. And it was a conversation about how much both of us desired peace.

MARTIN: How has this experience - the bombing, your wife's recovery, your search to connect with this man who almost killed your wife, how has this all informed your understanding of the larger conflict in Israel?

HARRIS-GERSHON: Personally for me, it's changed greatly. I mean I'm embarrassed to say that before the attack, I actually really looked upon Palestinians as nothing but a caricature of evil. I didn't know anything about them and I didn't really recognize them as human. They were simply in terms of Jewish history that I had learned, one in a number of successive enemies with which we've had to deal with and we'll have to overcome.

When I decided I was going to meet Mohamed, I just decided also that I needed to know who Palestinians were. And I've understood so much more in terms of the asymmetrical nature of the conflict and the intense suffering of Palestinians. I don't think that I'm any more hopeful of a two-state solution or a reconciliation and peace agreement. I at least now understand all of the factors involved, or at least most of them. And I do think that it's possible, but they're a lot of things that would have to happen for something like this to take place.

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MARTIN: David Harris-Gershon, his book is titled "What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?"

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MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.