At that time, Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit had been captured and imprisoned by the militant group Hamas for over three years. His name had become synonymous with the eternal struggle Israel faces with its hostile neighbors. Israelis wanted the government to bring their soldier home.
Our tour guide, with emotion lining her soft face, said that Gilad was every mother’s son. Every Israeli – every citizen, every woman, every man, every parent, every child – has been touched by war. Everyone has a story to tell of a soldier’s death. Every Jewish Israeli parent sends their children off to the army to defend the country, and each parent worries until those children come home safely. In this vulnerable country of nearly only eight million, situated in an unfriendly neighborhood of the world, every citizen matters, every soul counts.
And although 20% of the Israeli population is comprised of Arab citizens, and new immigrant communities are seeding and growing everyday throughout the country, the historic narrative of modern-day Zionism is still deep seated in the overarching Israeli consciousness. Being Israeli means being a soldier. Being Israeli means committing to your country. Being Israeli means Gilad Shalit not only represents your child, he IS your child.
Last week, the world has learned that Hamas has negotiated a deal with Israel in which 1,000 Palestinian prisoners would be released from Israel’s hands in exchange for Gilad Shalit.
One thousand prisoners for one solider. One soldier. One family’s heartbreak finally coming to an end. One solider’s life valued inestimably – beyond the security concerns of his own country, beyond history. One solider.
There is much to decry around this deal. Of the thousand prisoners being released, over time, by Israel, many are important Hamas operatives. Many are known terrorists, and one can only assume that they are itching to get back to work. Some, no doubt, are merely innocent Palestinians, caught up in the crossfires of their world, but for the most part, these prisoners are prisoners for a reason.
Undoubtedly the moves of these released prisoners will be tracked, followed and analyzed. Those for whom the release of Gilad Shalit is overshadowed by the potential security threat by the flowing of these people back into their communities might even feel vindicated the next time there is a Katusha attack on Sderot, or a Tel Aviv restaurant is targeted by a bomb. Or worse.
Was it truly worth the life of one solider?
But despite the rapid and overwhelming changes in Israeli society, from an agrarian, kibbutz-driven, democratic/socialist state in which the government pledged to protect its people in exchange for the people protecting the land, to today’s Israel, a now hard-driving capitalist society where the gap between rich and poor outstrips even the United States and Israeli citizens are learning the hard lessons of do-it-yourself democracy, despite all this, Israel maintains a contract with its citizens.
It tells them – you will be a part of the army of citizens who protect and fight for this country, this important slice of land that represents the history and the story and the soul of the Jewish people. In exchange, we will protect you. We will pledge to do everything possible to ensure your return to your family at the end of your service. And if something happens to you en route, we will do everything in our power to save you, and to smoke out those who have harmed you and address the situation.
I love democracy. I love the United States, and its brilliant, messy, inequitable democratic life. I believe deeply in the power of our vote, and of our civil society, and of checks and balances. I am grateful to live in a country that is friends with its neighbors, that has a volunteer army, and is unlikely to engage in a war ever again on its own soil. I believe in the power of the people to right wrongs, and to make decisions about their own lives.
But I am also a Jew. And I fervently believe in the state of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. I believe, too, in its brilliant, messy, inequitable democratic life. I believe in its history, and I believe in its future. I believe that Jews and Arabs need to live together and share the land that is their shared fortune and their shared history, but I will never waver in believing that the Jewish people belong there, on that tiny slip of land in the heart of the Middle East.
As a lover of Israel, I also believe in the need to protect its borders, protect its people, protect its very existence. I deeply respect the credo of the Israeli army, and its belief in the utter value of every soldier’s life. It is a noble pledge, although simply not a promise that could ever be kept here in the U.S. We’re too big, we’re too dispersed, and we’re too baked in our own narrative of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.
So I am watching the story of Gilad Shalit’s release with joy and pride, tempered by nervousness about what it portends for the future. But mostly, I am moved to tears to watch the needs of one solider outstrip the needs of the many. It’s a human story that we don’t often get to witness.
In Israel today, eight million strong, there is one heart that beats. Gilad Shalit is every mother’s son, and he is coming home.