Seeing how Israel has reacted to Gilad Shalit’s imprisonment somewhere in Gaza over the last nearly five-and-a-half years — from the public campaign for his release, through the media’s reality-show treatment of him and his family, to the government’s decision to release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, including hundreds of killers, to bring him back — it’s hard to believe that this nation’s traditional symbol is the sabra, the cactus.
If Israelis were once described as sabra-like in their outer prickliness and inner sweetness, the Shalit saga, which captured the Israeli imagination like no other public issue in recent years (until this summer’s huge social protests), turned the sabra image inside out: The sweet, soft center came to the surface, the stickers receded out of sight. In the matter of Gilad Shalit, this country wore its heart on its sleeve.
It’s remarkable, the lengths to which Israel was willing to go — the attention and energy given the Shalit cause and finally the unmistakably high risk taken to win his freedom — considering how security-obsessed and macho this society still is. Something new has developed in the national character, a change of attitude that the Shalit affair revealed in high definition: In Israel today, the value of the individual and family trumps the state.
The Shalit affair also has demonstrated how the media and public “conversation” have fallen in line with this new, softer outlook: The Shalits’ ordeal was treated strictly up-close-and-personal, as a long-running, tear-jerking human interest story. Gilad Shalit became the baby-faced “son of the nation,” while Noam and Aviva Shalit were strong, resilient parents fighting without pause for the noblest Israeli value — not country, but family. Their son.
The popular media, especially the tabloids, couldn’t get enough of the story. They tugged at people’s heartstrings without letting up. They portrayed Gilad Shalit as a boy, a son — not a tank soldier on the Gazan border. There was no distance between the media coverage of the “Free Gilad” campaign and the campaign itself. Noam and Aviva Shalit, like their son in captivity, were turned into living saints. No journalist dared ask them a tough question, and anyone contradicting their position did so gently and apologetically — and never to their faces.
The treatment reflected, of course, a large element of cynicism on the media’s part: They knew they had a great story, and they played it for all it was worth. As for the mass public campaign led by the Shalit family, it’s fair to say it, too, engaged in emotional manipulation, even emotional blackmail, of the decision-makers in Jerusalem.
But the campaign also spoke to a genuine, powerful sentiment among the Israeli public. No one forced some 200,000 people to follow the Shalits in their pilgrimage from their Galilee home to Jerusalem a couple of years ago. No one forced drivers in cities across the country to halt traffic for five minutes to honor Shalit earlier this year. “Free Gilad” billboards were plastered throughout Israel, along with banners and bumper stickers. The Shalit family tent, set up near the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, became a kind of secular Western Wall, an obligatory stop for class trips to the capital, as well as for foreign dignitaries.
Nothing was more consensus-making, more all-of-Israel, than the “Free Gilad” movement. Everyone understood that to free the soldier, Israel had to be negotiating with Hamas, that hundreds of prisoners “with blood on their hands” would have to be released, yet the public was behind it, and their desires drew the politicians and security mavens in their wake. The leaders of the Shin Bet, Mossad and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) backed the deal, and the Cabinet went for it 26-3.
The Shalit affair represents a radical reversal in the Israeli attitude toward POWs from what it was a couple of generations ago. In May 2008, while working on a story on Israeli POWs, I interviewed POWs who came home from the Yom Kippur and Lebanon wars, as well as a prominent research psychologist in the field and Defense Ministry officials. They all told me that in the past, Israeli society — above all the military — frowned upon POWs, and viewed them as cowards and screw-ups. After all, they had surrendered.
According to Tel Aviv University professor Zahava Solomon, the pioneer of Israeli research into the psychological condition of POWs, the disapproval shown toward soldiers who had been tortured, many of them for months or years, was rooted in the traditional Israeli military ethic that an honorable soldier, as she put it, “fights to the death, to his last bullet.” The soldier was supposed to die rather than be taken prisoner, thereby humiliating the army, the nation, and allowing the possibility that he might give away secrets under torture. The model Israeli POW, Solomon noted, was Uri Ilan, who committed suicide in Syrian captivity in 1955, leaving behind a note that read, “Lo bagadti” — “I did not betray.”
The general Israeli attitude toward POWs during the country’s first decades was one of “blaming the victim,” Solomon said, comparable to early Israeli attitudes toward Holocaust survivors. “Like the Holocaust survivors, soldiers taken prisoner were considered weak; they surrendered, they weren’t the invincible ‘new Jews’ that Israel was creating.” But over the years, even as the public’s attitude toward POWs has become far more understanding and sympathetic, she said, there remains a large element of denial. “Soldiers taken prisoner and held at the mercy of the enemy confront Israeli society with a self-image of weakness, of vulnerability,” Solomon said.
The turning point came during the 1982-85 Lebanon War, the first unpopular Israeli war. Miriam Grof, whose son, Yoske, was captured with other soldiers by Palestinian guerrillas led by Ahmed Jibril, spearheaded an emotional public campaign for their release. She was the model for the Arad family — whose campaign for the release of their son, Ron, also captured in the Lebanon War, failed — as well as for the Shalit family.
A few months after the Lebanon War ended, Yoske Grof and two other soldiers captured with him came home in exchange for 1,150 Palestinian prisoners released to Gaza and the West Bank. Many of those prisoners immediately took their places as militant Palestinian leaders, and at the end of 1987 they would be instrumental in launching the intifada.
The “Jibril deal” became infamous and remains so. Yoske Grof became a national scapegoat.
He didn’t want to be interviewed now, but in 2008 he told me that people would come up to him and blame him for the intifada. “I heard it all the time. I still do, including from strangers,” he said. He was understandably bitter. “This country doesn’t like live POWs,” he told me. “It prefers that you come home in a coffin.”
If at one time there was a large amount of truth to that, the Shalit deal shows how times have changed, dramatically. The pioneering, self-denying Israelis of the country’s early years have given way to a nation that puts “me” above “we,” that gets its news up-close-and-personal, that reads self-help books, that attends parenting classes.
For many years, it’s been a complaint of army base commanders that parents of soldiers call them up with personal requests/demands that previous generations of parents wouldn’t have dreamed of making. Also, Israelis have become big criers. IDF recruits can be seen on TV hugging and crying at the funerals of their comrades, something that still incenses old-timers.
Israel remains a fighting nation, but it has developed a tender, sentimental side, and it is this softer side that has won the day, that has led the nation to rally behind one innocent-looking soldier and his devoted, plain-speaking parents. For all the reality-show elements in the Gilad Shalit affair, it was also a very real demonstration of humanity, solidarity and sacrifice by Israel’s society as a whole.
Israeli values regarding the individual’s relationship to the state have changed — and for the better.
Larry Derfner blogs at 972mag.com.