“He who wrought miracles for our fathers, and redeemed them from slavery unto freedom, may he speedily redeem us, and gather our exiles from the four corners of the earth, even all Israel united in fellowship; and let us say, Amen.” “HaMakom y’rachem ethkhem b’tokh sh’ar aveilei Tzion v’Yrushalayim” “May G-d comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”
I remember the last time I cried. Not sobbed, but cried.
It was in England. I had returned there following my service in Tzahal to pursue my medical studies - my ambition at the time to become a physician. It was an ambition I left behind me some time ago.
I was a stranger in that country. I returned there British in accent and formal citizenship alone - not viscerally. In my soul, my mindset and my thoughts I had become an Israeli, moulded to that form in a fashion that only a military experience can beget.
No event defined my service to a greater extent than the second Lebanon war, during which Ehud Goldwasser, Eldad Regev and Gilad Schalit were kidnapped. Their abduction reverberated around our unit, to our officers and, of course, throughout Israeli society as a whole. Ehud and Eldad, Z’L were kidnapped on July 12th, 2006. Gilad, on June 25th of the same year.
When I returned to England in 2008, I was consumed with angst as to the fate of them all. I don’t believe I ever spoke out on the subject. It was too fresh. I simply prayed each morning and every night in my solitude that they would be returned home to their families safely, alive and well.
Every passing day brought greater loneliness in the United Kingdom. There seemed to be no-one with whom I could speak on this matter, nobody with whom I could share this experience. And yet I was sustained by a deep hope that all were still alive.
My Israeli friends, when I discussed the prospect of our soldiers coming home, would tell me that in the case of Goldwasser and Regev there was little reason to remain optimistic. So extensive was the damage to their vehicle, they would tell me, they could not possibly have survived. But hope I did, and pray I did. Israel entered into negotiations with Hezbollah for their return.
Then came the day of the exchange. I was driving as the news came over the radio. Coffins filled with their bodies were to be transferred, rather than soldiers alive and well. My hopes for their safe return were ended. I felt I had been naive and foolish. Drawing my car to the roadside I began to weep, and that weep became a sob and the sobbing evolved into cries.
I felt totally alone, detached from all around me and embarrassed by my optimism. It was July 16th, 2008, and that was the last time I cried. Today, here in Israel, we celebrate the return of Gilad Schalit, even as we console one another over the dreadful cost that has been furnished for his return.
Here in Israel, like nowhere else on earth, we have all carried the anguish of his absence and we have done so as one. That oneness is perhaps what made it all bearable. Here we refused to relinquish our hope, to cease our praying or to abandon our belief that one day, some day, we might yet see Gilad return. Here there was no loneliness in our anguish, rather abundant company to share the burden - tragically.
Today he is home. Our hearts soar even as many a tear falls. But I will not cry this day. Today, I prefer pragmatism rather than emotion when considering the actions of our enemies.
So pragmatically speaking, I state that most every member of Tzahal has known an emptiness since Gilad was taken from us. Each of us has tried not to wonder as to our own fate in the event that the worst should befall us, G-d forbid. Every family, every parent and every grandparent of Israel has felt the same, and Jews around the world have voiced their yearning to see Gilad come home.
Today, our government has brought him home and that anguish has dissipated. Tonight we rest assured that we will not be left behind in the field of battle, nor at a checkpoint, nor at any other post and we are comforted by that. Yet I fear that a new anguish has replaced the old, as we try to anticipate the actions and activities of those who have been released, the possible precedent that has been set, and as we hear the declaration by Hamas that kidnapping is thus proven to be a sound strategy - one to be replicated in the future.
Gilad had to come home. Our collective wound can now heal, but situations such as this cannot and must not continue. Friends, those who seek to terrorise us must be made to understand that our sons and daughters in uniform are not bargaining chips to be redeemed at the time of their choosing.
Our soldiers are our flesh and our blood, our guardians and protectors. They are our brothers, sisters, parents and children and they, each of them, must be guarded and protected in return. They are untouchable, sacred to us all.
So this day I will not cry, not even a tear, but I will certainly pray. I will pray that our government, even as I thank them for Gilads return, will ensure that such a sinister dynamic is never revisited upon us.
I pray Gilad and his family will know peace once more.
I pray the world understands the price that we paid and will draw no moral equivalence between their thousand and our one.
I pray we all remember the victims and families of the victims of terror - for dip as we do our fingers into the Passover wine each year to mourn the loss of another people, so too must the joy of today be tempered by sadness.
I pray we remember always that no matter how heavily this price may weigh on our hearts, it is precisely our heart that makes us so wondrous a people.
And I pray and give thanks for the fact that here in Israel, while lessons must be learned, changes must be made and policies must be altered; hope, for me, is never to be abandoned - not in the surroundings in which I find myself today.
Welcome home to you, Gilad. We pray that you heal and thank you for enabling us to do the same. It is we who salute you.
IDF Sgt. Res. Benjamin Anthony is founder and director of Our Soldiers Speak.