Welcome Home, My Brother
A miraculous bar mitzvah gift
It’s not everyday that the Jewish People are able to celebrate a modern-day miracle. For 1,941 days, or roughly five years and four months, many, including myself, longed for an opportunity to do just that. But, that opportunity almost didn’t materialize. Almost.
Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas on my thirteenth birthday. Around that time, my biggest concerns in life were deciding who to invite to my bar mitzvah party and the Grade seven exams I had yet to study for. Whether it was because Gilad was captured on my birthday or simply because I truly was reaching manhood with my bar mitzvah, I felt a special connection to this mysterious 19-year-old soldier whom I had never met.
As we rejoice in honour of Gilad’s freedom, it is important to remember those whose returns to Israel were not as uplifting. For around two years, Gilad’s name was usually mentioned in the same breath as Ehud Goldwasser z”l and Eldad Regev z”l, who were captured and murdered by Hezbollah two weeks after Hamas had kidnapped Gilad.
The campaign to return these three innocent men to Israel was a unifying force, felt by Jews of all backgrounds across the globe. After listening to stories told by their loved ones including Ehud’s widow, Karnit, and Gilad’s parents, Aviva and Noam, I felt that it was impossible not to care. In retrospect, this was probably the first social issue in my life for which I truly wanted, and honestly felt I could, make a difference.
Ehud and Eldad were returned, in coffins, to Israel in July 2008, in exchange for 200 dead terrorists and five living ones. By the age of 15, I was an aspiring writer. After encouragement from my family, I wrote my first of three (and first ever) articles regarding the prisoner swap that had just taken place, and what I felt it meant for Jews and Israel as a whole. I commended former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for not only showing leadership in making the trade, but for fulfilling a huge mitzvah of returning missing Jews, dead or alive, to their loved ones.
But understandably, the disappointing outcome of the prisoner exchange caused a huge dent in the hopes and beliefs of many that Gilad could one day be returned alive. As well, a common point of view was against such a prisoner swap in the first place. People would speculate that if 200 deceased bodies and five live terrorists were the combined price of two dead Israeli soldiers, then just imagine how much it would cost to release Gilad, if he was even alive.
Those who oppose trading countless terrorists in exchange for one soldier tend to make very rational arguments. What if the released convicts reoffend? Is it fair to the bereaved families to see the sentences of these monsters cut short? What if terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah now try to abduct more Israelis because they know that we will trade anything for them? What about the “we will never negotiate with terrorists” edict?
I have always felt in my heart that there is an emotional level to the debate that supersedes these points, despite the fact that they are well-put, legitimate arguments.
For instance, put yourself in the shoes of Noam and Aviva Shalit, or their children, Yoel and Hadas. Imagine what it must have been like for Karnit Goldwasser, to have had no idea whether she would ever see her husband again. Or if you can, try as hard as possible to put yourself in Gilad Shalit’s position, held captive in an unknown Hamas cell without any connection to his family or the outside world.
In Israel, army service is mandatory barring any unique circumstances. Gilad was doing what all of his fellow countrymen are required to do. That is to serve his country in the IDF upon reaching the age of 18.
He did not do anything wrong. He was illegally captured, illegally denied access to the Red Cross and illegally imprisoned for nearly five and a half years. Gilad never signed up to be treated as a human sacrifice. To even consider the possibility of letting him die in captivity, if only to prove a point that Israel does not negotiate with terrorists, would have been wrong.
Despite this, many believed that Gilad had been killed long ago.
“Why would a terrorist organization keep him alive?” people would ask. I’m not entirely sure of the answer myself, although the thought of him being looked at by his captors as a prime bargaining chip comes to mind, but I do know that he was alive on September 14, 2009, when Israel finally received a sign of life from him in the form of a video.
As we recently discovered, this video was an important factor if Israel was to complete the trade, as ordered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The video showed Gilad reading a newspaper that was published the same day that the video was shot, walking around to show his physical capabilities, and asking Israel to continue working towards his release. Gilad even smiled in front of the camera upon identifying himself as the son of Noam and Aviva, and the brother of Yoel and Hadas.
This video was more than just proof that Gilad was alive. It was proof that no matter what he was going through, and no matter how unlikely it was that he would ever see the light of day again, we needed to leave a light on for him, metaphorically, of course, to help him find his way home.
Of course, Hamas made sure to release videos aimed at squashing these hopes as well. In April of 2010, they posted an animated video which showed Noam Shalit having a nightmare that his son was released, but in a coffin. A few months later, another animation surfaced showing Gilad sitting in a chair with two gunmen beside him, followed by a dark screen, accompanied by the sound of gunshots.
Dealing with an organization that uses these tactics while publically calling for the destruction of the Jewish people in its charter, undoubtedly made Netanyahu’s decision even tougher.
And G-D only knows how hard this decision was for the families affected by the 1,027 criminals released.
But ultimately, by making what seems like such a one-sided deal, Israel showed the world how much it truly values one life, while also demonstrating to the brave men and women who protect and defend the state of Israel that, even in captivity, they are never alone, and that Israel will do anything to bring them home.
It’s safe to say that neither can be said about the terrorists of Hamas.
As Gilad Shalit saluted Netanyahu upon his safe return home, before hugging his father for the first time in over five years, and as he smiled while walking around his neighbourhood in Mitzpe Hila with his mother the next day, there was no feeling like it.
Welcome home, my brother.
Thank you to Aviva, Noam, Yoel, Hadas and Gilad for staying so strong throughout these horrible years, and for inspiring me to believe that Gilad’s return was even still possible.
And thank you, Prime Minister Netanyahu for fulfilling my bar mitzvah dream.