Book review: The Girl Who Stole My Holocaust, By Noam Chayut, trans. Tal Haran What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, By David Harris-Gershon

Two brave memoirs reach out across the barriers that divide the peoples of Israel and Palestine

Keith Kahn-Harris
Friday 11 October 2013 10:43
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The painful path of reconcilation: Palestinians cross a checkpoint in the West Bank
The painful path of reconcilation: Palestinians cross a checkpoint in the West Bank

On 31 July 2002, Jamie Harris-Gershon sat down to lunch with two fellow Jewish-American postgraduate students in a cafeteria on the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. A few minutes later, an explosion ripped through the crowded building. Jamie's friends and seven others were killed but she herself was only "moderately" injured – which still meant weeks in hospital recovering from internal injuries and receiving agonising treatment for her burns.

Get Harris-Gershon's book at the discounted price of £11.69 from The Independent Bookshop or call 0843 0600 030

Jamie's story appears at first to be the main subject of her husband David Harris-Gershon's memoir. It quickly becomes clear though that the book is about the author himself. Jamie and David returned to the US after the bombing. While Jamie appeared to make a good recovery, her husband found himself suffering from insomnia and mood swings, beset by guilt for his wife's suffering and assailed by anxiety for his young family.

While Jamie has no wish to know more about the bombing, David obsessively searches for information that could make some sense of it. He is surprised to learn that Mohammed Odeh, the Palestinian convicted by an Israeli court of planting the bomb, expressed remorse at his trial. Seized with a desire to meet Mohammed, David plunges into the byzantine world of Israeli bureaucracy. He hears from the Israeli prison service that the bomber has no wish to meet him. Yet he does not give up and, encouraged by contacts in peace-making and reconciliation groups, he eventually gets in touch with Odeh's family.

The meeting with the Odeh family in their East Jerusalem home is the climax to the book. However, it is surprisingly prosaic. There is some mutual understanding and empathy but it is the children that provide the source of connection: Mohammed's love the presents that their strange American visitor agonised over in the Jerusalem Toys R Us; the adults coo over photos of Harris-Gershon's children.

The prose seems to mirror the journey he makes. It starts in an overwritten, self-indulgent (and frankly tiresome) fashion but finishes in tough-minded clarity. He moves from ignorance of the Palestinian narrative to an awareness of why the likes of Odeh resort to violence, without ever conceding that the bombing that injured his wife was anything other than an atrocity.

Noam Chayut's memoir is also based on a journey, this time of an Israeli moving from a wilful refusal to see towards a bitter recognition of reality. An officer in the Israeli army during his national service, Chayut recounts his belated realisation of his complicity in the insidious cruelty of the occupation. The catalyst is a tiny incident: the horrified look a Palestinian girl gives him in a West Bank village.

The girl's evident belief that he embodied "absolute evil" made it impossible for Chayut to believe that in his armed service he was somehow avenging the absolute evil of "my Holocaust" that lay at heart of his identity. Chayut's sardonically witty book recalls the often petty brutalities that he helped to inflict on Palestinians. He also narrates the process by which he became a leading light in the group Breaking the Silence, which encourages Israeli soldiers to tell their own stories.

Protagonists in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and their supporters in the UK – will praise or damn these memoirs for their own purposes. For those who choose to dig deeper, they offer important lessons for how peace may one day be achieved. Reconciliation requires the kind of painful and brave efforts Chayut and Harris-Gershon make to understand both their trauma, and that of the other.

Keith Kahn-Harris is author of the forthcoming 'Uncivil War: the Conflict Over Israel in the Jewish Community'

Get Chayut's book at the discounted price of £13.49 from The Independent Bookshop or call 0843 0600 030

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