NY Times: Gilad Shalit Case Accents Israel’s Desire For Solidarity


shalit1By Ethan Bronner, NY Times

As the driver waited at a Jerusalem stop sign, a pedestrian popped his head through the open window. “Say, how much does this car cost?” he asked. “Are you happy with it? Nice features?”

It was a classic Israeli moment – a total stranger posing invasive questions reserved in most other places for family or friends. This is a society with little gap between public and private.

In trying to understand why Israel is scheduled to start trading more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners on Tuesday for the return of just one Israeli soldier held by Hamas for the past five years, it is worth recalling that within Israel, certainly within its Jewish majority, the notion of a stranger is remote.

When Israelis say they view the seized soldier, Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit, as their own son, they mean it.

It is the melding of private and public spheres, the unwillingness to distinguish between what is good for the state and what is good for the individual that is seen by many here as Israel’s greatest strength – but by others as its greatest weakness.

“Israel’s main asset in human and security terms is the sense of mutual responsibility that its citizens and soldiers feel toward one another,” wrote Ari Shavit, a columnist for the newspaper Haaretz, in explaining what advantages he saw to an otherwise risky prisoner exchange for which he had shown little enthusiasm.

“Without this feeling,” he continued, “there is no meaning to our lives here. Without this feeling, we have neither army, security nor the ability to protect ourselves. Rightly or not, Shalit has become a symbol of mutual responsibility. And therefore his upcoming release will not only be the redemption of a captive and the saving of the life and the return home of a son. Shalit’s release will be the realization of Israeli solidarity.”

Palestinians and some critics of Israel tend to despise this kind of talk: they argue that Israelis like to think of themselves as more caring but that in truth they are not – they just talk about it more.

Meanwhile, some Israelis say that failing to distinguish between public and private interests does not make for wise policy. They worry that releasing 1,000 prisoners, including some convicted killers, displays weakness and encourages more such abductions in future.

To ask how one would feel if one’s own son were being held captive is the wrong way to make decisions in the broader public interest, such critics say. The implication is that, in the long run, Israelis lack the emotional distance required to make tough choices that affect the public good.

“This deal is a prize for terrorism,” wrote Ben-Dror Yemini in the newspaper Maariv in a dissenting comment on the exchange. “This deal is a terrific victory for Hamas. It isn’t a deal. It is capitulation.” He added: “The old standard phrases always come back. ‘And what if it were your son?’ ‘Pay any price.’ ‘We have to make difficult decisions.’ And it works. It always works. It draws us all in.”

Part of the reason those arguments hold such sway is that mutual support and solidarity were pillars of the society’s founding and especially significant in Israel’s early decades. Israelis felt besieged, and in the pre-Internet era had very limited contact with the outside world, something the country’s leaders did not discourage. A famous example occurred in 1965 when the government stopped a planned Beatles concert for fear of its corrupting influence. There was no television until 1968, and it was under strict state control for two decades. Flights abroad involved heavy exit taxes for citizens into the 1980s.

But in the past couple of decades, Israelis have spread their wings. The global, information-based economy has suited many of them well. But the economic success has created great inequality and comes at the expense of the tight sense of community many consider so vital.

A yearning for a return to that solidarity partly explains the social justice movement that spread here over the summer with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets to protest the high cost of consumer goods and housing. The protests grew quickly into a movement whose goal was partly to recapture a lost collectivist essence.

As Amos Oz, the country’s most celebrated author, put it in a newspaper essay in August, “The first thing these demonstrators are saying, even before ‘social justice’ and ‘down with the government,’ is: ‘We are brethren.’ ”

In many ways, this followed directly on the movement that spread a year earlier aimed at getting the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to do more to free Sergeant Shalit. That effort, involving a tent and marches by thousands, became, in effect, a dress rehearsal for last summer’s protests. Both cut across ideological lines. Both reflected a growing belief that the government was failing to acknowledge and honor the sacrifices of its citizens, thereby contributing to a loss of community. Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, applauded Mr. Netanyahu for agreeing to trade Sergeant Shalit for the Palestinian prisoners. He said that the alternative – “to let him die in captivity – is unacceptable.”

“It does not meet the minimum conditions of the Israeli tribe,” he added.

Sima Kadmon, another columnist for Yediot Aharonot, wrote of the expected return of Sergeant Shalit on Tuesday as “a national bonfire” and referred to the soldier’s parents by their first names the way everyone here does.

Ms. Kadmon said the entire country was waiting “to take part in the excitement and joy, to see Aviva’s face, hear Noam, get answers to all the small details: did they organize Gilad’s room in Mitzpe Hila, what will they prepare for him to eat, who will wait for him at home, and what about his grandfather Zvi, who feared he would not see him return?

“For five years, we were there with them on the roads, marches, protests and the tent across from the prime minister’s home. Now we just ask for another moment to digest, accept and wipe away the tears.”

{NY Times/Matzav.com Newscenter}