A Soldier, and a Nation’s Psyche

With a few breathtaking moments of blurry camera footage, Gilad Shalit made his way across the Egyptian border on Tuesday.  Pale and gaunt as we imagined he’d be after five years in captivity, and shaking like a leaf, he was led through a maze of men in army uniforms and photographers’ flashing bulbs, blinking in the unexpected sunlight.

There was something uncanny about watching the captive soldier’s haunting image – known to us for so long solely through pictures emblazoned across banners, screens, and buttons – come to life.  For, over the past five years, Gilad Shalit has not been a person, or a soldier, he has been a symbol – of inept government, of the disastrous consequences of rash indecision, of the precariousness of sending children into enemy territory as part of an endless and bloody conflict.

But for the past five years, that symbol has also been a national obsession.  For every family sitting down to a Passover Seder, he was there.  For every mother and uniformed son saying goodbye at the bus stop, he was there.  Whenever happy occasions were toasted – birthdays, holidays, and weddings – he was there.  Sometimes a chair was set aside, sometimes it was decorated with a picture of a boy holding his hand up to his face in an enigmatic gesture that eventually began to scream almost audibly, “Release me!”  Sometimes the toaster of these happy occasions would voice his name in a prayer of hope, eliciting a pause from those standing around with glasses to imagine his face, or his mother’s, streaked with tears, or perhaps even a dank and foreboding dungeon the likes of which most of us have only seen through the eyes of a Hollywood lens.

And sometimes his presence had no physical manifestation of any kind.  But, like the chirping of a cricket in the backyard, like the shadow of a moth flickering in the lamplight, he was always there, in the background, whispering to us from the terrible blackness beyond the Gaza border.

If there is one thing the Jewish nation has in spades, it’s memory.  Posters juxtaposing Gilad with lost navigator Ron Arad were seared into the backs of our eyelids.  Slogans churned out by politicians echoed in our minds, as did the pleas of terror victims, prodding at us, allowing no repose.  The faces of Shalit’s parents, dejected, beseeching, torn, abject with pain, have been our righteous torturers.  We sought them out every so often to remind us of our collective misery, of our inexcusable jadedness.  They were the bone the media gnawed on whenever it became restless.  They were the index of our national guilt.

To finally see Gilad Shalit cross the border was exalting, but it was also excruciating.  Tottering as though about to faint, with an awkward, almost infantile gait rendering his bone structure painfully visible through an unnaturally crisp army uniform, Gilad Shalit was suddenly all too human.  Israel had recovered a member of its ranks, but it had lost a symbol.

What this means for Israelis, and just how it will make them feel about the return of more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners to retrieve Shalit, remains to be seen.  Statistically, many of these former inmates will continue to carry out attacks against civilians, and no doubt there will be those who blame the next assault on the prisoner swap deal.  Families will mourn their dead as “Shalit deal victims,” and others will lose their limbs or become vegetables, handicapped for life.  There is no doubt that we have paid for Gilad Shalit, this wasted pile of malnourished limbs and jutting cheekbones, with blood.

And yet it seems there could have been no other way.  For every day he spent in captivity, Gilad Shalit’s ghost was wandering through our cities and army bases, sewing distrust in the government and military, shining a glaring spotlight on our leaders’ impotence, and whispering, always whispering: What if I was your son?  Your brother?  What if I were you?  In such a tiny country, where army service is mandatory, one need not wonder about these queries for too long.  To all of us, it was far too clear what Noam and Aviva Shalit were experiencing, and it could not be ignored.

Therefore, the price we will have paid was not for Shalit, or his family, but for our wellbeing as a nation.  Those who are eventually murdered by the terrorists we have freed will be dead, but they will not dwell in the dark recesses of our souls, crying out for us to rescue them.  Those who will emerge handicapped, scarred for life from these attacks, will live among us, wallowing in our woes and (hopefully) rejoicing in our joys.  They will never captivate us so fully as symbols, obsessions, as Gilad Shalit had done.

Whether this is fair or not is immaterial.  The price we have paid is monstrously iniquitous.  But, like doling out a psychiatrist’s pay, it has bought us back our emotional health as a nation.  It has reacquainted us with our love of life.

Welcome back, Gilad.

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