My Letter to Bob Bergdahl


Dear Bob,
I know this is a difficult time for you and your family, which is partly why I’m reaching out, to let you know that I feel a deep kinship with you, despite the many differences in our circumstances and perspectives. While you lean conservative in your political views, I am an unyielding progressive. While you reside in a small town in Idaho, I am composing this from Pittsburgh, the city in which I live. And while your son was held captive for many years by the Taliban – while you struggled to secure his release with the determined focus only a father’s love could generate – I have struggled in a different way, working to move beyond the terror attack which injured my wife in Israel, an attack which has propelled me to fight for the human rights and dignity of my so-called enemy.
Despite these differences, our struggles have shared several fulcrum points, and these points have made it so difficult for me to watch politicians and the media exploit you and your family’s pain. There are moments this past week in which I have trembled with anger, have felt the need to lash out, to grip someone by the throat and scream, ‘Leave them alone’.
But I’m not a violent person. I’m a writer who acts with the pen, not with fists, and as such I’ve chosen to write to you in public as a way to support you in a country where so many want to reflexively do the opposite.
I hope this letter finds you in peace, and so I’ll begin again by saying שלום עלכם (shalom alechem), which is the Hebrew equivalent for the Arabic السلام عليكم (as-salam aleykum).
Peace be upon you.

While I do not understand the full complexity of your trajectory, what I do know makes me feel deep respect and admiration for you. I know that, in order to fight for your son, you immersed yourself in language and culture, learning Pashto as well as everything you could about the Taliban, about both Afghanistan and Pakistan as a way to understand those who held your son. And I know that, as you immersed yourself in such learning, you began to understand in ways so many don’t the complexity, and the humanity, of those on the other side.
You learned of the effects our drone program has had, even learning that one of your son’s captors had his own son killed by a CIA drone strike. You came to understand the evils of the detainee issue at Guantanamo Bay, of the suffering experienced by both sides in this conflict. And this inspired you to pray for those holding your son, and compelled you to recognize them as victims as well.
Your original goal was to secure your son’s release. And that journey brought understanding. In some ways, it’s a similar journey I underwent, despite the obvious differences. In 2002, my wife was injured in a terror attack at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, an attack which killed the two friends with whom she was sitting and psychologically paralyzed me. Upon moving back to America, I began researching the bombing as a way to overcome it, and immediately learned that the Palestinian man who perpetrated the bombing, Mohammad Odeh, had expressed remorse for his actions – was sorry for the pain he had caused.
This moment propelled me on a journey to meet him personally, a journey which led me to voraciously read Palestinian writers and come to understand the deep suffering and traumatic historical experiences of my so-called enemy in ways I never had. And I took that understanding back to the Middle East and into the living room of Mohammad’s family.
Now, my journey was an attempt to free myself from the captivity of PTSD, which seems trite and insignificant when compared with your struggle to free your son from a very real and painful captivity. That said, I know what it means to understand the other side, to come to terms with the other side.
I also know what it means to be vilified for it.
You and your son have been viciously exploited for political gain. You have been called a terrorist sympathizer, you have been cast as anti-American, you have been slandered by those who claim you suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. All of these verbal attacks have been launched not because they represent any truth; they have been launched by those interested in waging a metaphorical war against the White House and a very real, military war against Muslim countries (often driven by a deep Islamophobia). In short, your pain has been delegitimized, your compassion has been delegitimized, and your understanding has been delegitimized by those who wish to use you as an instrument of war.
In a muted way, I understand this personally. I have been vilified in the American Jewish community, called an anti-Semite for legitimizing Palestinians’ right to nonviolently oppose Israeli policies, called anti-Israel for recognizing Palestinians’ deep suffering and the denial of their human rights, and charged with suffering from Stockholm Syndrome for personally reconciling with the Odeh family.
These attacks are equally bombastic and false, though I understand where they come from: they come from a place of fear. A fear that my people, Jews, will forever be in peril, that Israel as a safe haven will disappear in a world where anti-Semitism has brought unspeakable atrocities.
The attacks against you and your family also come from a place of fear, an irrational fear that anti-Americanism, this case in the Muslim world, will lead to further attacks upon our country. Our post-9/11 world has created this, and we must contend with it every day as our security state increases.
Despite your incredible experiences, you seem determined to oppose this fear. To not allow it to dominate your actions, your views, your will.
I send my deep and sincere wish for all this to pass soon, for your family to find the peace it deserves, and for you to know that there are so many in this country, like me, who support you. As Americans. As global citizens. As fathers and mothers and sons and daughters, as those who understand what it means to lose, what it means to love, and what it means to live with a fear that things could break at any moment.
Please send my love to your wife and to Bowe, if this letter finds you, as so many strangers have done for me. I know how much it can mean to just know there are others out there.
There are others out there, Bob.


What Do You Buy For the Children
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, published recently by Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.

25 thoughts on “My Letter to Bob Bergdahl

  1. The writer makes himself too present in another person’s tragedy.
    My take? Something short like “Many people are thinking of you, some kind, some harsh. I send you deep sympathy.”

    • .
      This writer is confused. Did you come only to critique, or are you actually offering your deep sympathies? If the latter, I hope the Bergdahl family sees that you stand with them.

      • David, Perhaps the Bergdahl family does not need deep sympathy. They owe a debt of gratitude for the long effort and the sacrifice of highly values prisoners to win his freedom. Their son did not die. he’s alive and del and recovering in Germany. I don’t get the sympathy part. So many have been captured by the Taliban and Aw and never lived to see their freedom. So many girls have died at the hands of the Taliban for going to school. What a relief, Bergdahl is back alive. Perhaps we will find out the circumstances of his disappearance.

      • I think you could have shown sympathy for, and solidarity with, Mr. Bergdahl without tooting your own horn and advertising your book. Very distaceful.

        • .
          Interesting that this is your takeaway. Which begs the question: would you like to offer your support for the Bergdahl family as well?

  2. Personally, I do very much support the Bergdahls. Whatever Bowe has done — or not done — as to proper conduct as a soldier, his family should support him and criticism of them is stupid: they are family and what does anyone expect? Criticism of the father by the right wing is asinine.
    My take is that you, Mr. Harris-Gershon, were too present in the post.
    It made me uncomfortable as I was reading — the post seemed to be as much or more about your own tragedy (past & present) as theirs…& you were making a political point (about which in fact I do not agree) and I was cringing and hoping that you would not make an issue of yourself and your own political views. Kinda like going to a funeral for X and then talking about your own feelings about Y who had died (But X & Y didn’t even know each other.) Yes, you were trying to make the connection and it’s my sense that it was inappropriate.
    And specifically, further politicizing the Bergdahls may serve your personal interests but I do not think that helps them.
    If they would like your help by connecting the dots (as you see them,) write to them (Hailey is a small town) and ask if you can help them. But please ask first.

  3. So discouraging that people can find ulterior and self-serving motives in your beautiful letter. But I believe more and more that the seekers for, and carriers of, peace will prevail. God bless you, David.

  4. I don’t get the sympathy thing. Bergdahl was released alive. We should be celebrating his release. This a is a good thing. How many people have been capture by the Taliban or AQ and killed. IN some cases they were beheaded whole alive. The US government met its obligation to bring its captured servicemen home alive and at the cost of releasing 5 Taliban prisoners in leadership positions. Now the military wil find to the circumstances of his capture.

    • .
      So here is the trajectory of your comments so far:
      A) I help anti-Semites.
      B) You don’t get why a father whose son, after being held and tortured by the Taliban, is now being attacked as a traitor and anti-American deserves any compassion?
      It’s as though you want your opinions to be discounted, along with those this post would like to drown out in support of Bob Bergdahl.

      • 1. You support a very anti Semitic BDS movement
        2. No one know that circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture.
        3. You tried to reach to a terrorist convicted of murder because your wife was injured from his bomb, In all your writings you never expressed sympathy for those who lost the lives in that same bomb. Instead you tried to reach to the terrorist and short of that his family to express your solidarity with their cause.
        4, SJL is righty, it is al about you and your ego.

        • .
          The willful ignorance you display is unfortunate. Last time I’ll respond to you:
          1) If supporting Palestinians’ right to nonviolently press for human rights is anti-Semitic, then yes, I’m an anti-Semite.
          2) Has no bearing on the vitriol the family is receiving. None.
          3) Your words are technically slander. You attack without having read my book or actually knowing anything about me. Rather lazy, and unfortunate. (Those friends who suffered with us as a result of the bombing would take great offense at your words.)
          4) Entitled to your opinion, though I wonder if it’s colored by your own political leanings?

  5. A touching, heart felt letter. Unfortunately war and conflict often seem to rely on the blind acceptance of the narrative by those needed to support and fight. The greater the political basis and the weaker any rational for the conflict, the greater the reliance on nationalism and patriotism to garner the support of the masses. Clearly, any individual who attempts to gain a better understanding of the nature of the conflict and as a result, in any way publicly contradicts or suggests alternative interpretations must be vilified and denounced.

  6. I find your personal story and perspective refreshing. I have not read your book yet but will soon. Therefore I offer no critique of you your writing or the accusations laid upon you. What I do know as a Veteran and rather progressive one at that is I felt and still feel ashamed of what some are saying and doing to this family. The UCMJ will sort out what it needs to and the Army will investigate when it is ready. The hate is based on ignorance. This can be helped but only if one is willing to learn and see more than one side.
    I don’t know what you have been through and I no longer know what to believe about two religions and cultures at each other’s throats but I think without understanding there may be no end in sight.
    Thank you again for the perspective and my best to you and yours.

  7. Keep up the good work, David.
    Those who equate BDS with anti-semitism are those who equate Israel with Judaism. And if Judaism is represented by Israel, then we must mourn the descent of Judaism into brutality and intolerance. I therefore reject equating Israel and its actions with Judaism. It is a tough but now necessary reality.

  8. Only today have I learned of the “controversy” surrounding Mr. Bergdahl and have been utterly dismayed by the words and actions (death threats) of so many people, and not merely politicians. Thank you for so passionately and articulately saying what I would if given the chance to meet a member of the Bergdahl family. It sometimes feels as if so few people are willing to view those who are feared as actual humans, and if that reality is voiced it is met with scorn and derision. Love, compassion, and the search for wisdom are what give this world meaning and beauty. I send the Bergdahl family all my support, love, and compassion. I will also try to have compassion and gain understanding of those who would so hastily offer only hate, even if their actions cause the Bergdahl family pain… Because they are humans too.

  9. David, I appreciate your “penned ideas,” and look forward to reading each essay. You have insightfulness, compassion and love for all peoples. I’m using some of your ideas for a “Father’s Day Forum” as your words demonstrate a father’s love and consistent care for his child. Also, you exemplify “fatherly love”–compassion, understanding and empathy for all humankind. Thanks for sharing your gifts with us. Bless you and your efforts to help us move toward world peace.

  10. I support the Bergdahls. The Army will opine in due course on Bowe’s actions. Whatever Bowe has done — or not done — as to proper conduct as a soldier, his family should support him; criticism of them is asinine: they are family.
    But my comment is also that you, Mr. Harris-Gershon, were too “present” in your post. You made yourself a central player into the Bergdahl drama while you are not even on the stage. We are all in the audience and should stay that way until we know more (except to give them space.)
    • With your comparisons, you inserted yourself into their family tragedy .
    • Then you used their tragedy for your own political purpose.
    I felt uncomfortable reading your post, starting with the overly-familiar “Dear Bob”. It seemed so out of place. Maybe like going to a funeral for X and then talking about YOUR own feelings about Y’s death? (But nobody else knew Y.) Yes, perhaps you were trying to make some broad important connection but it’s my sense that it was inappropriate to do so and using them.
    Further politicizing the Bergdahls may serve your personal interests but I do not think that helps them.
    To me, no matter what Bob Bergdahl said or did, I would chalk it up as a father doing what he could to save his son and view it in that light: people will say/do anything in extremis.
    If you would like to help them by connecting the dots (as you see them,) write to them (Hailey is a small town) and explain your analysis and ask if it is OK. But please ask first.

  11. Excellent piece. I’m glad Harris-Gershon brought up his own experiences because they are analogous to those endured by the Bergdahl family.
    As Jesus, not my personal divinity but a great prophet said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.”
    Even 2000 years ago, it was necessary to make that point. In other words, it is never easy being a peacemaker as David Harris-Gershon and the Bergdahls all know.
    There are always people, let’s call them McCains, who can only throw stones and agitate for war, hate, killing.

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