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Op-ed: Gilad Shalit's Release Restores Heart of Israel

It is impossible to overstate the intensity of emotion felt in Israel at the news of Gilad Shalit’s impending release. Many of us have been glued to the television screen with unrelenting tears in our eyes since we first heard about the imminent deal. It feels like we just let out a collective breath, like a balloon that had been about ready to burst just let out all its air. And I think this entire episode says something profound about Israel as a society and culture.Naom Shalit celebrating Gilad's release

Published in The Forward, October 12, 2011, issue of October 21, 2011, as a response to Brent E. Sasley’s piece about the consequences of the deal to free Shalit.

The deal for Shalit’s release represents a central ethos of mutual responsibility that once defined Israeli culture. My husband, who was on line in the supermarket in Sukkot shopping along with much of the country when the news began to spread, described what he called a “quintessential Israeli moment.” The stress of shopping 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.

Every one of us has been tormented during the past five years, knowing that Shalit was sitting in some hole in Gaza while we were all sitting here helplessly. We all felt it, and we were all tortured by it.

Some, like Brent E. Sasley, argue that this emotional reaction is out of place. They say that the lopsided exchange —1,000 Palestinians prisoners, including some of the most murderous in Israeli history, in exchange for one Gilad Shalit —puts other people’s lives at risk. To them, I would say that there is much more at stake here than “just” Shalit.

This is about rescuing the basic ethos of collective care that has rested at the core of Israel. The mantra heard everywhere, that Israel needs to bring home Shalit no matter what, demonstrates the resolve of this ethos and is a tribute to Israeli culture, which profoundly supports mutual responsibility.

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The mantra heard everywhere, to bring Gilad home no matter what, demonstrates the resolve of this ethos, and is a tribute to Israeli culture which profoundly believes in mutual responsibility. The trauma that Israelis have experienced knowing that a soldier in captivity may remain there indefinitely–  like Ron Arad, Zachary Baumel, and others who are still out there – is excruciating. As Uri Shahak, who was held hostage in Syria for three years following the Yom Kippur War in 1973, said, “When I was in captivity, I had no doubt that Israel was doing all it could to release me. It was just a matter of time. But since then, the language has changed. Back then, nobody talked about the ‘price’. It was just known that captives had to be returned.” The gradual loss of that knowledge and security, that every single person is valued, has had a degenerative impact on Israeli society, on a day to day strength of survival, on the core belief that we are all in this together. Indeed, the practice of living “normal” life while soldiers are left to simply wither and die in enemy hands has the effect of training Israelis to stop caring about others and to worry only about themselves.  

There are political implications of this kind of collective apathy. Shalit’s captivity had a ravaging effect on the most basic sense of personal security, or promoting a socio-cultural “laissez faire”.  When people feel that nobody is looking after them, that the government is corrupt and callous, that nobody has their backs – not the army and not the nation’s leaders – society begins to crumble. And that’s exactly what we have been seeing.  I would argue that it’s not an accident that the deal was struck right after the summer of protests. The protesters were rejecting that entire sense of abandonment, as if to say, if Gilad Shalit is abandoned, we are all abandoned. Indeed, when Noam Shalit, Gilad Shalit’s father, appeared at the tent protests over the summer, the impact was definitive. He was living proof of the protesters’ claims that the government has forsaken the people.

The announcement of the deal is also timely. Right at the breaking point, when the health care system is on the verge of collapse and the entire country is about to go on strike, Gilad Shalit’s release puts everything on hold. The country does not want to talk about salaries and contracts right now – we are rescuing Gilad Shalit. This was Prime Minister Netanyahu’s personal and almost fatherly message as he announced the deal: hang on, he seemed to be saying, I really am looking after you. We’ll see if it has the desired effect.

Shalit’s return has the potential to bring back Israel’s collective heart, to remind us of what we are really about as a nation. We desperately need it. The country needs a vision for the future, one with a social consciousness, one that reminds us that we are truly a nation of people who care. Maybe Gilad Shalit’s return home will also return Israel’s soul. And I believe there is no price too high to rehabilitate a nation’s heart.

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