While the average 19-year-old worries about college applications and job hunting, teenaged IDF sergeant Gilad Shalit spent his days worrying whether he would live to see his family again; or if he would perish behind enemy lines, forgotten, abandoned by his country.
Captured on June 25t 2006, by Hamas militants in a cross-border raid which killed two of his platoon mates, Shalit spent the next five years of his life languishing in captivity and isolation; denied medical care, proper nourishment, and contact with his family. During these years his family fought valiantly for his release, raising public awareness until the campaign, spearheaded by Noam Shalit, Gilad’s father, succeeded, creating waves internationally as well as in Israel. After a series of tough negotiations Shalit was released in a highly controversial exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners; including some convicted of multiple murders and carrying out terror attacks against Israeli civilians.
On the one year anniversary of his release, Shalit embarked on a speaking tour in New York City, accompanied by seventeen members of his old unit and several ranking officers. Yeshiva University, Yale, Magen David High School, SKA High, and Columbia were among the few institutions privileged with the opportunity to hear him speak, and pose questions to a panel of the soldiers. The events were closed to media, Yale requiring a personal invitation and YU restricting it to students and faculty; in addition, great precautions were taken to prevent photographs or videos from recording the event and security measures put in place.
Consequently, while countless media outlets abroad and in Israel attempted to secure interviews with Gilad, they were sent packing by both the government and his family, which fiercely protected Shalit’s privacy. “After going through such an experience, the damage is far more than physical, it can leave deep emotional and psychological scars which require time and therapy to properly heal,” explains Israeli psychiatrist Dr. Natan B. “Pressure from the media to open up too soon, coupled with exposure to large crowds can cause a regression and delay recuperation. He is still frail, the last thing he needs is a negative comment pertaining to the exchange or snide remark; that would be enough to overwhelm him or trigger a breakdown. “
Contrary to popular opinion, the trip was far from a pleasure jaunt or a PR event for the IDF. “It is essential to remember one important thing,” states Dr. Chagit Hadar, Shalit’s contact and the organizer of the Magen David event. “This was not a fun trip or publicity tour. Gilad did not travel here as an individual, he came as a member of the platoon for therapy—and to provide closure necessary for the trauma endured since his kidnapping. The unit is accompanied everywhere by a staff of trained psychiatrists, they have daily group and private sessions, and this is the first time they are traveling together, as a unit, the way they did prior to the kidnapping. Speaking about their experiences together, as a group, will hopefully expedite the rehabilitation process.”
Hadar further expounded on the fact that what the public remains unaware of is that the unit as a whole was affected psychologically. For high school graduates to lose two members of the unit, watch see others approach death with serious wounds, and watch as a third was kidnapped— knowing all the while that they were helpless to control the situation— it was deeply painful. Many of them still suffer from forms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, survivor’s guilt, insomnia, anxiety attacks, and anger. “We have all carried around a heavy weight for the past five years,” explained Yoav B., the commander of Shalit’s unit. “We want to go on with our lives.” In addition, the unit felt that their message was important for the Jewish community to hear as well. “This final mission my company is taking is not just on behalf of Israeli Jews, but on behalf of international Jewry as well.”
Despite the hassle involved in bringing in Shalit, it was well worth the effort.The university appearances were one of the first times both Gilad and his fellow soldiers opened up about the events that occurred on the day of the raid and the effort to release their fellow comrade. YU’s Lamport Auditorium was packed to the brim with students who posed questions to the soldiers. Members of the unit spoke briefly; their statements translated by YU senior Daniel Green, who served as an officer in the IDF.
“The message provided was one of hope, and courage,” states Michael D., who will be graduating this June with a degree in computer science. “I personally gained a lot. I spent several years learning in a Jerusalem yeshiva, and I wanted to help give back to the country of my ancestors. What stopped me from enlisting was the fear that I, too, might be captured or killed. But after listening to the way these soldiers describe the unbreakable bond between unit members, how one would walk through hell to save another and the efforts they went to just to free a fellow combatant, I know that there is no other army I would rather be in. I’d fight alongside these men gladly, and feel no more anxiety towards my enlistment date after graduation.”
Yale students as well were touched by the presentation. “I went out of curiosity,” states one student who wishes to remain unnamed. “I personally disagreed with the politics surrounding the exchange, but watching these men live was an eye-opener. I mean, I’m the same age as them. I, too, enjoy sports and like pizza, I too argue with my siblings and sweat over college papers. But they endured something I never could endure with courage and fortitude. Just for that they deserve applause.”
Magen David High was the first school to host Shalit, inviting delegates from other schools in the Jewish community. The students posed various questions about the kidnapping which were answered by Shalit and his unit. A common question posed on the price to pay for human captives was answered by Ron D., one of Gilad’s platoon mates. “The main ethical code in Tsahal is to leave no man behind. If injured or captured, we do our best to save each soldier—even at our own risk. Even worse than life-threatening injury is the knowledge that you returned from a mission without your brother—because that is what we are: brothers.” The soldiers unanimously and fervently agreed that the IDF should pay any price to save a single human life. Their response was heartfelt, and the audience reacted with tears and standing ovations.
Another question posed regarded conflict in the field. The soldiers answered with a story, a tank mission, where armed terrorists surrounded themselves with children to dissuade incoming attackers (a deplorable and all-too-common tactic among Palestinian militants). The situation was a catch-22, the unit could hold their fire, risking death and possible failure in apprehending the terrorists, or they could shoot and risk the children’s lives. The commander immediately ordered his unit to hold fire, saying “Wait, we don’t shoot innocents.” The unit remained in the tank for twenty minutes, holding fire until the children left.
“Media often paints the IDF as an aggressive killing machine,” stated one soldier. “But they don’t realize how wrong they are. Anyone who enlisted can tell you how they train us with an ethos of survival, not hate. We don’t kill innocents. We simply train to protect our country.”
The soldier used a cactus as a metaphor – explaining that while the IDF was strong enough to uproot the entire plant, instead it chose to remove the dangerous needles one by one. “We have enough technology to destroy areas of Gaza rife with terrorists shooting rockets at our civilians. Instead, we opt to track down each individual terrorist. We don’t want to hurt families and children.”
When Gilad was asked how he passed time in captivity the answer was unexpected. “I tried to maintain a routine,” he said. “I would sleep and wake up at the same time. I walked around for exercise….created a ball from some socks…played chess with the guards. I had no communication with the world for the first three years. After that, they allowed me to watch sports channels on TV, and that’s it. I never imagined the scale of support for my release— when I was returned to Israel, I was shocked to discover that so many knew my name….It’s not something I take for granted.”
After the question and answer session, Gilad, an avid sports fan, joined a basketball game with his unit, playing against Magen David’s varsity team. Student council president Adira Reback attended both the Magen David event, as well as Gilad’s final appearance in DRS Yeshiva High School for Boys.
“I see him as a hero,” Reback exclaimed. “He was able to return with such pride for Israel, despite the fact that it was his nationality which led to his kidnapping. He sang ‘Hatikva’ with as much pride as any Israeli. That, and the fact that he is able to share his experiences with so many people, teaching us never to give up. He’s a living miracle. We all prayed for his release, and here he is, in our school, alive and well.”
When asked what she took away from the panels she replied with several insightful comments. “Firstly, I understand that we are all in this together. We may not be physically fighting and in uniform, but there are still ways that we can remain active in Israeli advocacy and help our fellow soldiers, even an ocean away. Secondly, I learned to value human life. Many of us don’t appreciate the gift we have, and the potential to do great things. This young man had a price tag—1,027 lives—placed over his head. People went to great lengths to preserve that life, but now what will he do with it? We have no price tags hovering over our heads, and no immediate pressure to succeed, but until your life and freedom are in jeopardy you never truly appreciate their value.
Aside from the panels at schools, Shalit and his unit were honorary guests at a Friday night dinner hosted by Congregation Ahava v’Achva, where they were presented with sunglasses and watches, donated by members of the congregation. Rabbi Mizrachi spoke, delineating on the weekly Torah portion, where Cain asks “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
“The answer is simple and appropriate for tonight,” said the Rabbi. “Yes, we are our brother’s keepers. It is our responsibility to ensure the support and happiness of our fellow Jews, especially our brothers who risk life and limb to protect us from harm.“
Shalit and his unit are expected to return to Israel shortly; hopefully armed with the understanding that thousands support them and are inspired by their words.
of Yeshiva University.