By Avi Gross
The most surprising thing about meeting Gilad Shalit is how unremarkable he looks. Despite being at the center stage of the world’s attention for a number of years, he looks like almost any other 26-year-old kid.
I and a small group of other students from my Zionism course at Rambam were able to meet Gilad and members of his pluga (company) through the courtesy of Magen David High School which organized a special program around Gilad’s visit to the U.S. Gilad and his company are currently touring and speaking at a number of U.S. institutions, Jewish and non-Jewish (such as Yale University), but it was truly special for a group of Jewish teens to meet and hear him and his comrades firsthand.
Magen David’s principal, Rabbi Saul Zucker, introduced the program with warm words about the importance of Israel to the lives of Jews in America. Two soldiers then spoke about Israel’s uniqueness as a small country surrounded by enemies that had nevertheless emerged as a successful nation.
At the question and answer session that followed, we gained important insights into the minds of Israeli soldiers. The visitors were asked if their ethical code had ever stood in the way of their obeying an order. One soldier recounted how, while controlling the main gun for a tank, he was once ordered to fire upon a walled structure with several enemy combatants behind it. There were, however, children nearby who would also have been injured or killed. Despite his commander’s orders, the soldier refused to fire upon the structure until the children had left the vicinity. They waited until the children had run from the site before commencing to fire. The audience felt overwhelming respect and admiration as they listened to this tale of moral propriety in the face of danger and uncertainty. Another soldier, when asked what motivated the average fighter in the Israeli army, spoke of how some were motivated by a strong Zionist or nationalistic belief, but others acted out of a more immediate sense of loyalty to their comrades. These soldiers fought not for their country but for their friends. Seeing the soldiers joke with each other reinforced the idea that these men had formed a special bond between them, and it was this bond, perhaps more than anything else, that motivated them to fight.
During this portion of the program, Gilad simply sat amongst his comrades, joking lightly when one of them mispronounced a word in English, occasionally leaning over to whisper something to another. However, for the most part, he seemed distant and ill at ease. But then a question was addressed specifically to him: How did you survive during captivity?
The room became noticeably silent, as if all the oxygen had suddenly been sucked out. The moderator told Gilad that he didn’t have to answer if he didn’t want to, but he stood and began to answer softly and slowly. As he spoke, there was a marked change in his demeanor: his face looked morose and his eyes were pained. His free hand nervously tapped against his left pocket, and his face flinched slightly with each difficult memory. He described how he had a blindfold on for weeks, not knowing where he was or who was around him. Contact between himself and his captors was limited to a few curses or a jeering remark. After a while, his blindfold was removed, but he then spent months in isolation without any lasting or meaningful human contact. After what seemed like an eternity, his guards felt comfortable enough to talk with him about sports. He was careful never to discuss politics. His news of the outside world was restricted to teams and games. Months later, he earned enough trust to receive a radio. At this, he stopped, unable to continue, and slumped back down in his chair, seemingly crushed by the weight of his memories.
As an army psychologist discussed PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and its effects on soldiers, it seemed clear that Gilad, though certainly functional, would never fully recover. He was home now and even had a job, but in a way it felt that a part of him had been left behind in captivity.
The questions ended soon after, and we broke into discussion groups with a moderator helping to guide the conversation. Our principal, Rabbi Eliach, led a group that discussed Israel and its distinctive position on the world stage. He distributed informational documents and recounted some of his personal experiences in Israel and in the Israeli army. We emerged with a reinforced sense of Israel’s unique cultural identity and history.
The experience was unique and dynamic, allowing students to interact, engage in issues, and delve into ideas about Israel. The need for greater Israel-consciousness in American Jewish schools is of vast importance, and the event helped to reemphasize this point. Gilad’s story is now a part of the larger story of Israel, and it is a story that needs to be shared with all American Jewish students.
On behalf of Rambam Mesivta, I’d like to thank Magen David High School for accommodating and allowing us to join in their discussions. v