When my wife and I moved from the plains of Saint Louis to the desert hills of Jerusalem in the summer of 2000, we were newly married, giddy, and full of hope. Our intention was to spend a year studying talmudic texts, to absorb our bequeathed culture in the land whence it came.
Which is exactly what we did, dancing in circles on the sandy soil as doves circled high above Camp David, where Bill Clinton attempted to negotiate a peace agreement between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, between Israelis and Palestinians. It was a peace we hoped was imminent. It was a peace that never came.
Two years later, in the summer of 2002, while we were pursuing graduate degrees in Jewish education, Hamas terrorists struck a cafeteria at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The blast tore open the building, threw my wife, Jamie, on the blood-streaked linoleum floor, and killed the two friends with whom she was sitting.
Amazingly, despite the shrapnel that pierced her body, Jamie survived. And after enduring an agonizing recovery in Israel, we returned to the States, where I—the secondary victim—became paralyzed by PTSD-like symptoms: Hyperventilating in public. Suffering panic attacks as a new, hyper-vigilant father. Becoming an insomniac as visions of terror kept me awake at night.
Compartmentalizing didn’t help. Therapy didn’t help. And so, struggling to live the life we’d been granted by chance, I decided to confront my trauma directly by researching the bombing, by learning everything I could about it. In doing so, I learned that the Hamas terrorist who placed the bomb next to my wife, Mohammad Odeh, had been captured by Israeli police. I learned that he had come from a moderate, middle-class family. And I learned that he had, astonishingly, expressed remorse. He had said the words, “I’m sorry.”
And when I saw those words, “I’m sorry,” I knew that I would go back to Israel/Palestine and try to confront him, try to ask him, “Why?”
Not because I wanted to seek my revenge, but because I was desperate to heal.
Five years later I did go back, for Mohammad Odeh’s family had, remarkably, invited me to their home in East Jerusalem. The invitation availed itself after an intense, drawn-out correspondence between us, a correspondence conducted on my behalf by peace activists and Palestinian officials via ballpoint pens and lined paper.
The correspondence began when, in the summer of 2007, Leah Green of the Compassionate Listening Project traveled to the Odeh family’s home in Silwan on my behalf. She arrived at their door with a letter I’d written in her hand. Mohammad Odeh’s mother and brothers, after beckoning Green to a couch in their living room, sat and listened as my words were translated and read aloud. English becoming Arabic. The unknown becoming known.
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