A Center City synagogue is moving forward with its plan to host an author of a memoir about the aftermath of his experiences with terrorism in Israel who also has generated controversy for advocating economic sanctions against the Jewish state.
The board of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, a Conservative congregation, voted last week to allow David Harris-Gershon, an American whose wife was badly injured in a 2002 terrorist attack at Hebrew University, to tell his story at the planned program on May 18.
Synagogue president Arlene Fickler said it was a “very difficult decision” that the 18-member board struggled with over several hours, but in the end, a “substantial majority” voted not to withdraw the invitation.
The controversy over hosting Harris-Gershon, who has spoken in many venues over the past year but was also disinvited from at least two scheduled events, is the latest local incident to ignite debate over where to draw the line on acceptable Israel-related programming.
The Hillel at University of California, Santa Barbara, and a JCC in Washington, D.C. canceled events with the author of What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? citing his support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
Following the BZBI vote, Harris-Gershon said he was “grateful that BZBI values the upcoming dialogue, am honored the community wants me to speak, and look forward to interfacing with the community.”
The author, who teaches at a Jewish day school in Pittsburgh, stands by his position supporting economic sanctions as a non-violent alternative to terrorism. He said in a telephone interview with the Jewish Exponent that when he published his column, “Today, I’m Coming Out in Favor of BDS,” on his Tikkun magazine blog on July 9, 2012, he was advocating for the use of BDS tactics, not the movement itself. He has since written clarifications of his views.
“I was identifying BDS as a concept, not the movement itself, which I think was part of what was confusing for a lot of people, including the hosts who ended up canceling,” said Harris-Gershon, 39.
Referencing the widespread notion that if the BDS movement got its wishes, it would likely result in a “one-state” outcome and the end of the Jewish state, he said, “I don’t champion or subscribe to the implicit goal of the movement of a binational state.”
The author said his speaking engagements are not intended to promote his politics, but rather to tell his personal story about how he came to seek reconciliation with the family of the terrorist behind the bombing.
In 2002, in the midst of the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, a terrorist set off a bomb at Hebrew University, killing two of Harris-Gershon’s friends and severely injuring his wife, Jamie, who had shrapnel lodged in her body. Years later, when he was back in the United States and researching the attack to gain a better understanding of what had transpired, Harris-Gershon found an Associated Press article stating that the attacker, Mohammad Odeh, had told investigators he was sorry.
Unsure of what to believe, Harris Gershon writes in his memoir, he decided “the only way you’ll know is to ask him.”
“A nod came from deep within me,” he writes, “without any rational understanding of the mechanics involved. A decision had been made: I would try to secure a meeting with Mohammad, the idea feeling shaky.”
The book recounts his extensive efforts to meet the Hamas terrorist who was being held in an Israeli prison.
“I have no interest in revenge, no interest in harboring feelings of anger, no interest in blame. Instead, I am only interested in listening, in giving Mohammad a chance to speak, to hear his story so that I may understand fully my own as I attempt to move beyond what happened,” he writes.
Harris-Gershon failed in his attempt to meet Odeh personally, but he was able to meet Odeh’s family in Silwan, an Arab neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem.
The attack had brought him “face-to-face with an undeniably barbarous element woven into the fringe of Palestinian society,” he writes, but in meeting Odeh’s family, “what I saw was a normal people. A kind people. A broken people.”
Despite his sympathetic views toward the Palestinians and his frustration with the Israeli government over its treatment of Arabs and continued construction of West Bank settlements, Harris-Gershon said, he remains pro-Israel and a supporter of a two-state solution.
And while he was disappointed by the cancelations of some events, Harris-Gershon said he does not regret writing the piece in support of BDS but wishes he had better clarified the gap between his views and the goals of the BDS movement from the start.
In a subsequent post, he wrote:
“I am a progressive Zionist who believes firmly in the idea that Israel should be a Jewish, democratic state, despite the inherent challenges and contradictions such an existence presents. I am also one who fully supports a two-state political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which each side is able to live within defined, secure borders.
“I believe that economic sanctions, such as boycotts, are legitimate forms of nonviolent protest, in contrast to, say, violence or vandalism. I do not, however, subscribe to the BDS movement’s implicit vision of a single, binational state as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
BZBI leaders said they were not aware of Harris-Gershon’s initial BDS blog post when they invited him to be part of the congregation’s series on Jewish authors.
When it came to light over the past few months, officials said, the board engaged in an intense process to reassess the invitation. The rabbi and programming director spoke to the author directly, board members read his blog posts and some read his book.
“I think that all of us were very troubled by the language that the author used” in his initial blog post and “yet in the end, having extended the invitation to have him talk about his book and not BDS, we decided not to withdraw the invitation.,” said Fickler, who also heads the Israel Advocacy Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, a group that wrestles regularly with who’s in and who’s out of the pro-Israel tent.
“I’m very proud of the process we went through,” she added.
But some think BZBI is making a huge mistake. By hosting Harris-Gershon, BZBI is giving a platform to someone who supports “unfair discrimination against Israel,” said Joseph Puder, director of the Philadelphia office of Stand With Us, an Israel advocacy organization.
“The Jewish community should promote reasonable, constructive and informed debate about these challenges, not promote extremists who revive the debate about whether the Jewish state should exist or who irresponsibly and falsely demonize it,” Puder wrote in a piece urging the congregation to rescind its invitation.
Harris-Gershon said he never brings up his support for BDS at events and is hardly ever asked about it.
“They want to me to talk about this book and the topic of reconciliation,” he said. “I think the main message that I’ve gotten from a lot of the hosts has been support for me and opposition to the idea of censoring or canceling an event that is supposed to be about dialogue.”
BZBI Rabbi Ira Stone said he was satisfied with his congregation’s decision “even though we know people are going to be upset by it.”
“We understand this is a controversial decision but we gave it a lot of time and effort and made the best decision we could.”
Not everyone will agree with Harris-Gershon’s left-wing politics, the rabbi added, but “this is a Jewish guy who lived in Israel, who teaches in a Jewish day school and whose wife was almost killed by a terrorist.”
That, he and Fickler asserted, is a story worth hearing and will be the sole focus of the evening, which will include an expert in mediation and dialogue interviewing the author.
Stone said the synagogue would not allow someone to talk about BDS from the bimah, and after speaking to the author directly, is satisfied that won’t happen.
Stone said the questions from the audience will be “controlled” and no BDS-related questions will be allowed.