KIBBUTZ KETURA, Israel — On the same night Gilad Shalit was released after more than five years in captivity, I found myself, rather unexpectedly, in the middle of a crowd of thousands of smiling, dancing bodies — an all-night desert rave in a canyon near the Dead Sea.
It was an odd, but somehow appropriate mix of events: the salvation of one man, one man whose life kept the entire nation of Israel agonized and somber and hopeful for half a decade; and thousands of others dancing, a purely physical release of tension and stress and fear, the exorcising of negative emotion. A cause and effect, if you will, as if the rave only happened because we, as Jews, as a nation, were able to breathe easily — that yes, finally, Gilad had come home.
I want to ponder what has just unfolded, and certainly will continue to unfold, with the freedom of Gilad.
There’s a popular opinion outside of Israel, and to a much smaller extent within Israel, that we have just walked into a death trap. New York Times contributor Walter Reich thinks so. In his column last week, he argues that based on numbers alone, we made a mistake. And sure, based on numbers, we did. Israel traded one live soldier for over 1,000 captured Palestinians, several of whom have already — within a single day of their release — committed themselves to taking more prisoners and ending more Israeli lives. So, in essence, one life was returned to us as a dauntingly uncertain number of lives may soon be taken away. As he writes, it was a head versus heart game. Our hearts were desperate for Gilad’s life; our heads should have told us this was not the deal to make. And as they so often do in politics and life and love, our hearts won. Netanyahu made the deal. Gilad was returned, looking gaunt and scared; 477 Palestinian prisoners were released, with the rest to follow in two months.
But I would argue with Reich. To simplify the situation to head and heart neglects several key factors. Will more Israelis die at the hands of Hamas’ newly freed battalion of terrorists? Maybe. Probably. And that, undeniably, will be tragic. But will Israelis decry that the decision was poor, even after a possible new shower of attacks begins? I must say no.
With Gilad’s freedom, Israelis are reminded that alongside their mandatory service in the military is the promise — ironclad — that the nation will do absolutely everything in its power to bring them home. They will not leave one soldier behind; they won’t even leave one body behind, or the remains of what once was a body. And this promise, something that seems utterly foreign to me as an American, means everything in Israel. It’s this promise that Israel was literally founded upon: we, as Jews, will never quit. We will never again let an enemy demean us. We will fight to the death for every single life. It’s pride; it’s power. It’s love of a country, love for each other.
In America, we were in the streets this summer when we killed our greatest foe. You would never see such elation over death in Israel. As militaristic Israel may be, we celebrate life here, not death. When Gilad came home, we held our breath. We cried into our hands. We couldn’t believe it was actually happening.
I’m sitting here on Kibbutz Ketura, surrounded by Israelis, Brits and Americans. Rob, an ex-soldier from England, put it this way, bluntly: “You get your f—-king boy back. And that’s it. No matter what it means. So our freed prisoners will go back to plotting against Israel. And we’ll go back to foiling their plans. But one thing means everything. That’s what Israel is all about. You get your f—-king boy back.”
After five years and four months, we got him.
(Justin Jacobs, a former associate editor for the Chronicle who currently lives in Israel, will from time to time send back columns on his observations of life there. He can be reached at his blog, justinhjacobs.com.)