Monday, December 05, 2011

At Any Cost?

There isn’t a place in Israel where you couldn’t see his face over the past five years, be it on bumper stickers, billboards or large road signs. His name was on the tongues of politicians, reporters and ordinary citizens over the same time period. He became a celebrity of sorts, and thousands rallied for him across Israel and major cities worldwide, including London, Rome, Paris and New York. On October 18, his popularity reached its peak—Gilad Shalit was coming home after almost 2,000 days as Hamas’s hostage. How did this soldier become such an iconic figure worldwide?

A year and a half after Shalit’s abduction in June 2006, Noam and Aviva Shalit turned to the media in order to ensure their son was front-page news as often as possible. The Israeli PR firm Rimon-Cohen-Shinkman worked tirelessly to ensure Shalit remained in the country’s daily thoughts. Their stickers, billboards, flags and iconic blue and white picture of the soldier struck gold. With full media support (they referred to Shalit as “The child of all of us,” or “The boy”—and not “the soldier in captivity”) and little opposition to the idea of a deal from politicians (career suicide?), porters, pressure continued to pressure grew on Bibi Netanyahu’s government to strike a deal with Hamas. The deal Bibi eventually struck was a costly one (90% of Israelis polled thought the price was too high), but one the Israeli public supported (80%) – 1,027 Palestinian prisoners would be released, amongst them some of the most evil terrorist minds Israel had arrested. The days that led up to, and those that followed, the release were extremely intense – a nation united around this joyous occasion despite the other side – a side of mourning, anger and fear.

There wasn’t one family in Israel that wasn’t happy for Gilad Shalit and his family. The soldier, who had been in captivity for over five years, was finally home. The pictures of Shalit on the phone with his family, saluting Bibi after disembarking, hugging his father or just smiling united the country. It was a feel good story – one that showed how much importance Israel places on our soldiers’ lives and how important of a figure Shalit had become in the Israeli psyche. However, despite this immense joy, there was another side. The wounds of families who had been ripped apart by the actions of some of the terrorists we released were inevitably reopened, and little to no attention was afforded them by the media or Supreme Court, whom they petitioned to stop the deal. Their pain and anger at this neglect highlighted how the “other side” was marginalized in the Gilad Shalit debate.

The other side of the “at any cost” campaign waged through the media cast, and will cast, a shadow on this deal for many years. The deal clearly shows terrorist groups that kidnapping Israeli soldiers works – an open invitation to capture the next Shalit. It also sadly ends the idea of a prison sentence, no matter how long, being a potential deterrent for terrorists; far too many of the terrorists released had so-called life sentences, and now they’re free with a university degree (courtesy of Israel). Many of the terrorists released have vowed to continue killing Jews, or helping educate the next generation of terrorists how to do so.

Since Israel released 435 prisoners for Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of two Israeli reservists in 2004, 27 Israelis have died as a direct result of those prisoners’ actions. Israel has directly endangered the lives of many Israelis by releasing so many cold-blooded, unrepentant killers in this deal. The Tannebaum deal strengthened Hezbollah’s position within the Arab world, and likewise, the Shalit deal has strengthened Hamas and greatly increased their popularity amongst the Palestinians. They sadly seem to be the biggest winners here.

Some have said that halachically this deal was a must as it fell under Pidyon Shvuyim (Redemption of Prisoners; the Talmud calls it a mitzvah rabbah, a great mitzvah, as captivity is viewed as worse than starvation and even death [Bava Batra 8b]). However, many rabbis have said that the issue is far more complicated due to the danger the released terrorists will pose to Israeli society. Despite the many worrying issues, Bibi’s government pushed through the deal. Gilad Shalit is home…but at what cost?

When Shalit was released, I went through a wide array of emotions. I was happy for him and his family. I sincerely hope he can get back to being “anonymous,” and that the media leaves him alone. I was also greatly saddened by the difficulty and pain the trade was causing victims of the terror attacks, as the perpetrators returned home as heroes, brandishing victory signs to the celebrating masses. At the same time, I was angry—we’ve freed killers who will kill again. If a few Israelis are killed because of these people, were their lives really worth less than Gilad Shalit’s? Perhaps my feelings, and those of many combat soldiers, have been best expressed by “Y,” a Shayetet 13 (Navy Seals) soldier:


If, heaven forbid, I should be abducted by a terrorist organization, I request the following from you:

Please do not organize any demonstrations, please do not conduct any interviews, please do not talk about how much this is hurting you and please do not organize any festivals or musical competitions on my behalf. Any novice in business knows that that is not the way to lower the asking price.

I am not “everybody’s child.” I am a combat soldier in captivity. Please do not use me as a pawn. I do not want the entire world to know who I am and what my name is, while nobody can remember the name of the soldier who died right by my side. I don’t need the media to use me as a freebee. I don’t want to become a tool for furthering all sorts of political agendas, power games or manipulations.

I don’t want to become the national beacon, nor do I want to be the entry ticket to the Israeli consensus. I don’t want the idea of my release to become official dogma that is forbidden to be questioned.

I do not want the people who dare think differently to be silenced on my behalf.

I don’t want the media to use me to get better ratings.

I don’t want entertainers to write a song about me to improve their Google results.

I am not a bottle of shampoo: Do not make a logo of my picture. Do not add my face to your Facebook profile. Do not stylize my silhouette to make a slogan.

Do not hire a public relations firm to mold public opinion and that of the decision makers. Do not set up “creative teams,” “optimization teams” or “marketing teams.” Do not set up a “headquarters.” Do not hold any staff meetings with burekas and slideshows. Do not hold any brainstorming sessions and do not create any “critical mass,” do not arrange any advertising budgets or market penetration. Do not write any strategy sketches, do not build any chart-, cross section- or graph-analysis of the population.

I do not want any “panel of experts” or conferences. I don’t want anybody counting the number of days of my captivity. I don’t want any “depression merchants” making a career off my story.

Do not produce any pins, ties, flags or t-shirts. Do not hold any marches, demonstrations or parades for me. Do not set up any on-campus petition booths for me. These things will decrease my chances of being released. These things only serve to confuse our decision makers. I am not a reality show. I don’t want you to photograph me with my father as a souvenir while thousands of murderers are being released on my behalf.

I don’t want you to wave any blue-white flags when really, we are in a white-flag atmosphere.

I don’t want the cold-blooded murderer of 16 people smiling as he is being released, having gained some weight within the few years since he directed a victory sign at the families of the murder victims in the court room.

I am not prepared for the hundreds of families who only recently buried their babies, who are rightfully filled with rage, to be presented as “party poopers.” I am not prepared for the kid who went with his father, mother and three brothers to eat pizza and came back alone, to watch the murderer eat baklava in his “victory hut,” a mere 20 kilometers away. I don’t want the murderers released to eastern Jerusalem to ride the light rail together with my niece. I don’t want families whose entire world has just caved in on them to read in the paper that the man who murdered their boy is going on a Club Med vacation in Turkey. I don’t want their pain to receive a mere one-eighth page coverage, just before the sports news, because “reporting-wise it is better that way.” They already know that the blood of their beloved sons is cheap; they don’t need to have their hearts crushed completely.

I feel just so comforted to know that the president has “pardoned but not forgiven them.”

I don’t want the next Intifada to be named after me.

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