What an amazing sight it was to see that young solider, thin and pale in his khaki uniform, uneasy on his feet, unaccustomed to the light, falling into the arms of his father after more than five years in captivity. Women wept; children took to the streets waving Israeli flags; young soldiers followed every moment of the exchange until Gilad Shalit was indeed free and safe in the embrace of his family and his nation.
Gilad Shalit had become a symbol of the intransigence of the relationship between Israel and its Palestinian neighbor, especially the Hamas terror network that controls the Gaza Strip. Just 19 years old when he was kidnapped on June 25, 2006 by a Hamas raiding party, his location was such a secret that not even the famed Israeli Mossad could figure out where he was. He was home in time for this year’s celebration of Sukkot – essentially Israel’s feast of Thanksgiving.
And though some politicians and pundits in Israel condemned the exchange – one soldier for 1,027 Palestinians, including convicted terrorists and murderers – generally Israelis celebrated the return of their beloved son.
That celebration, though, was tempered with ambivalence and concern about what happens next. Won’t some of the terrorists who were released by Israel – or who are due to be released soon – go back to their violent ways?
After all, we’re talking about the organizer of the 2002 Passover bombing that killed 30 people. We’re talking about a woman who lured an on-line romantic Israeli to his death. We’re talking about the man who proudly showed off his bloody hands after two Israeli soldiers were beaten to death in Ramallah after making a wrong turn and ending up in Palestinian-controlled territory.
The fact is that, according to Israel’s own statistics, 60 percent of released terrorists do resume their bloody work. And at least one minister in the Israeli cabinet that voted for the release pointed out that Palestinians exchanged in 1985 – a swap of 1,150 prisoners for 3 Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon, — were later responsible for the deaths of 178 Israelis.
Another reason for ambivalence and concern: Won’t terrorists be encouraged to just kidnap more people and hold them for ransom? The commander of Hamas’s military wing already has said, and I quote, “We will continue to abduct Israeli soldiers and officers as long as there are Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.”
Contrary to the persona he promotes to the West, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas expressed admiration for the Hamas kidnappers of Shalit in recent remarks in Arabic. And, after a prominent Saudi Muslim leader offered $100,000 for the capture of an Israeli soldier, a member of Saudi Arabia’s royal family said, in essence, “Hey, let’s make it a cool million.”
In an op-ed piece in last week’s “Jewish Forward,” Professor Brent Sasley warned that such trades send a message to Hamas and Hezbollah that their strategy is working – and that it will continue to work. There will always be, he wrote, a next Gilad Shalit.
And yet, with all this, I think most Israelis are willing to pay the price.
Freeing the captive is a fundamental tenet of Jewish law; we include it in our morning blessings as one of the nisim b’chol yom, one of the miracles of daily life. In ancient times, it meant rescuing prisoners of war; in the Middle Ages, saving prominent rabbis who were taken by gangs of Jew haters. In modern Israel, the precept of “matir asurim” means no soldier is ever left behind.
But the return of Gilad Shalit goes far beyond the precepts of the Bible. In a contrasting essay in the Forward, Israeli author Elana Sztokman wrote that it speaks to the heart of Israeli society and culture. When news of Shalit’s release came, her husband was out among the hordes doing Sukkot shopping. “The stress of shopping,” she wrote, “was transformed into a moment of collective joy, in which anonymous fellow shoppers were suddenly connected by this bond of concern. There were no longer differences and divides, but rather a sense that we are all living the same story. These events are part of all of us, running deep into our souls. . . I believe,” she concluded, “there is no price too high to rehabilitate a nation’s heart.”
But why would a prisoner release bind everyone on the Israeli street together this way? Because Gilad isn’t just the son of Noam and Aviva Shalit. In Israel, he is everybody’s son.
National service is a requirement in Israel; after high school almost everyone spends two to three years in the Israeli Defense Forces. Every mother’s son is in harm’s way at some point during military service. Every father’s daughter puts herself in danger. And since Israel is a small country, with enemies at every border, there isn’t a family that hasn’t been touched by loss. So they feel every loss deeply, as though it were their own, because it very well could be.
I was in Israel in 1994 when another soldier, Nachshon Wachsman, was kidnapped by Hamas terrorists disguised as a car full of Orthodox Jews. Hamas demanded the release of 200 prisoners, including the terrorist mastermind, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. There was no swap. Instead, six days later, the government sent a paramilitary team to the location where they believed Wachsman was being held.
By the time they got through the steel door, Wachsman was already dead, and every Israeli I met felt as though he or she had lost a child or a brother or a best friend. Nachson Wachsman was the last Israeli soldier taken before Gilad Shalit. And nobody who lived through that night of horror that unfolded live on Israeli television wanted to go through it all again.
Some months later, I joined the teachers and students of the Rehavia Gymnasia to mark Yom Ha-Zikaron, the day of remembrance for those who have died in defense of their country. Rehavia Gymasia is the high school in central Jerusalem where the children of the well-to-do and the politically well-connected to go school. Their connections do not absolve them of military service; in fact, just the opposite: Many of these young men and women choose to serve in elite units, and they often are put in the most danger.
That day, as they do every year, the students and teachers gather to read the names of former students and teachers who have died for their country. They were joined, as every year, by recent graduates, all in military uniform.
These students – 15 or 16 or 17 years old knew that they too would soon be wearing khaki and toting semi-automatic rifles, patrolling perimeters overlooking Syria or Lebanon or the Gaza Strip. They knew that they, too, would be willing to sacrifice themselves for Israel. But they knew that Israel would make sacrifices for them if necessary. In Israel, every soldier is not just somebody’s son – he is everybody’s son.
It was for his son that Abraham became a servant of God, beginning in this week’s Torah portion. “Raise your eyes and look out from where you are,” God tells Abraham, “to the north and south, to the east and west, for I give all the land that you see to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth.
For if the grains of sand of the earth could be counted, so too will your offspring be counted.”
For thousands of years since, Jews have served God so that their children would reap the rewards, and the blessings of God, in the Promised Land. For thousands of years, Jews have seen their future assured in the lives of their sons and daughters. And so it is today, for this tiny, besieged nation, this close-knit people. When Newsweek magazine this week asked, in a title to this story, “What’s a prisoner worth?” – it was asking the wrong question. The question is: What is a child worth? And for a people that loves its children far more than it hates its enemies, there is clearly no price too great.
Those of us who have watched all of this from the relative safety of our own homes may also be concerned or ambivalent about what’s transpired. But we cannot help but admire such love. Let us pray for a day when this love leads to peace, to a day when we never again must free a captive son or daughter of Israel. And let us say together: Amen.
©Audrey R. Korotkin