There are so many blogs I could write about Gilad Shalit, it’s difficult to settle on one. I could write of the tsunami of emotion that swept Israel up in tears of pain and joy as step-by-step we followed Gilad’s journey home. I could write of the dilemmas of our overpowering desire to see this one boy come home set against the rational knowledge that this deal can only strengthen violent resistance to Israel’s existence. I could write of my own personal experience of tearing myself away from the TV screen to attend my son’s army ceremony marking the end of his NCO training course – and the tears I wept as I saw the 200 young men and women march onto the field to receive their sergeant’s stripes. But I feel I have to write something to try and make sense of all this intense emotional experience in a peace-building context, as that was the task I set myself in writing this blog.
First – I have been somewhat silent over the last few weeks, not because I have nothing to say (anyone who knows me knows that is rarely the case), but because I have returned to gainful employment as the Associate Director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel – and am therefore taken up by working on practical peace-building rather than just writing about it. Due to popular demand, however, I intend to write about one blog a week now that I’m getting my act together.
Back to Gilad Shalit. For once, I must admit, I was totally engulfed by the Israeli experience of the last few days. It must have been so hard for any Israelis not here in the country – this has been such an all-encompassing national moment – including the pain felt by the families of terror victims watching the murderers of their loved ones walk free. It must also be difficult for anyone not Israeli to comprehend the fact that this has totally taken over the country – I have no idea if anything else of note has happened in the world this week, because as far as Israelis are concerned, this is the only story that exists. The streets were empty as everyone stayed glued to their TV screens. Probably largely because having a child in the army is such a shared Israeli (Jewish non-Haredi) experience, but also because the collective is still so strong in Israel compared with other Western countries, this was a story that every Israeli felt personally. Every Israeli waited with baited breath for Gilad to reach Israeli soil. Every Israeli – even those who vigorously opposed making the deal – felt deep empathy for Aviva and Noam Shalit as they battled on their son’s behalf, and were finally graced with the chance to embrace him in their own home.
Yet even as I was swept up in the Israeli narrative, I was aware of the parallel Palestinian narrative unfolding not far away. For once, both Israelis and Palestinians were experiencing similar emotions at the same time – as we celebrated the return of our son, they celebrated the return of theirs. Difficult as it is for us to draw parallels, in their eyes they were greeting their captured soldiers just as we greeted ours. We may see the Palestinians we released as convicted murderers; they welcomed them home as returning prisoners of war. We may gloat over our elevated moral stature that dictates that no price is too high to save a single human life – in their eyes, they exploited our emotional weakness in order to free their heroes – and some of them can’t wait to capture another soldier and do it again.
And that may be why, even though for some reason the Left was fully behind making a deal to release Gilad, whereas the Right consistently opposed the deal, this may well not be a step in the right direction for peace-building. One might hope that Israel might now be able to leverage the minimal trust built with Hamas to re-invigorate the peace process, if we were interested in a peace-process. Indeed, in one survey carried out on the eve of Gilad’s release, a large majority of Israelis were reportedly in favor of talking to Hamas in order to negotiate a long-term cease-fire – superficially at least, an astonishing statistic, and one that might be exploited to further negotiations. Yet logically it seems that this deal can in fact only strengthen terrorism. Once again, Israel has demonstrated that we only understand brute force. Once again, Israel has taken steps to strengthen Palestinian extremism rather than the moderates who might be prepared to resolve the conflict once and for all. This time, on a rational basis, I suspect that the Left was probably wrong and the Right was most likely right.
But humankind does not function on brain-power alone. How could we possibly have acted otherwise, given the emotional empathy that the Shalit family managed to generate over the course of the last five years and four months? Gilad Shalit had indeed become the son of each and every one of us. How could we knowingly and in good conscience sign away his life? And all I could do as I drove past the empty Gilad Shalit protest tent yesterday was weep tears of incredible joy. And give thanks that for this family at least, their worst nightmare is finally over. And voice the official slogan of Gilad’s release: כמה טוב שבאת הביתה – Welcome Home!
In the midst of the Simchat Torah celebrations, when we perform the annual tradition of finishing the reading of the Torah and immediately beginning again, I realised that I could have finished this blog a little differently. This morning just after the Torah reading we replaced our usual prayer for Gilad’s return with a prayer of thanksgiving for his freedom, and as we did so , I realised that my prayer for this particular season is that the deal for Gilad’s release might break the cycle of violence. Instead of immediately beginning the cycle again, it would be a true blessing if we could take the opportunity to change direction, and make this a story that progresses towards an end-point, rather than an endless repetition of violence and pain. This Simchat Torah, let’s try not to repeat the pattern, let’s do our utmost not to start again at the beginning of the same story.