News that Gilad Shalit would finally be going home after five long and cruel years in captivity had just reached Israel and the entire country was rejoicing.
Except for me. Because at that precise moment, I was oblivious, waiting for my aunt to join me at Ben Gurion Airport to board a flight to the States.
“Something’s going on!” my aunt clued me in once she found me. A longtime resident of the Galilee, she had taken the train to the airport where she had discovered the good news through osmosis.
For even without a fancy electronic contraption, my aunt actually felt a tremor pass through the crowd and understood immediately that something was up. Something big. Because all at once, the entire car erupted. Everyone was making phone calls. Everyone was talking.
Gilad was finally coming home.
How can I convey to you the feelings that engulfed Israel? The sheer jubilation that gripped an entire nation that this soldier of theirs, kidnapped by Hamas and kept in who knows what kinds of terrifying conditions for 1,942 days, would finally be able to hug his parents, sleep in his own bed and be a free man in his own country?
Throughout our flight and brief layover before boarding another flight we grasped at whatever news of Gilad we could get, which wasn’t easy in sleepy American airports at the crack of dawn.
I found out later that back home in Israel, everyone was glued to the news, watching, waiting, celebrating. No one could work. Life seemed to stand still as Gilad, in the now-infamous shirt of many colors, descended the ramp from the plane that carried him back to Israel and was hugged by his father, the prime minister and the chief of the IDF.
After living in Israel for nearly three years, it felt wrong that I wasn’t there to be a part of this.
Because Gilad wasn’t just an abstract concept for me — he was a regular part of my daily life. I often walked by the Shalits in their protest test across from the prime minister’s residence.
There they were, Noam and Aviva, (she was often knitting), surrounded by fellow Israelis who campaigned until the very end for Gilad’s release.
Then there was the life-sized cardboard cut-out of Gilad in his army uniform looking wafer thin and pale with dark circles under his eyes locked inside a cage of barbed wire. The sight always ripped my heart to shreds because it was a very visceral reminder that Gilad was indeed alive and trapped in a living hell.
And the banners full of colorful messages from Jewish children around the world along with the steady stream of well-wishers were also reminders that the Jewish people had not forgotten one of their own.
But the joy for Gilad’s release is marred by its heavy price, 1,027 terrorists, to be exact, released in exchange for the life of one soldier.
And not just any prisoners, but those who have committed what can only be called crimes against humanity, including atrocious bombings and even a lynching.
“Are you worried about this?” I asked an Israeli friend, alarmed at the security risk of freeing all of these vengeful people.
His answer surprised me.
“Not in the least,” he replied. “It will be no more or less dangerous than it always is.”
His point is that people intent on inflicting harm will inflict harm. And that life in Israel is always precarious no matter how many enemies are set free.
But what he really wanted to talk about was how the Gilad Shalit exchange — one life in exchange for thousands — is what separates Israel from the rest of the world.
It’s true. You might get trampled to death trying to board an Egged bus or you might get ripped off by a cabbie, but if you’re a Jew living in the State of Israel, your life matters. Even after death you matter. Israel has gone to extreme measures to bring home bodies of Israelis to bury them with dignity.
“Shalit, I wish I had a country like yours!” said a Kuwaiti woman quoted in Ynet in an article about lone Arabs who, writing in their individual countries’ newspapers, publicly admitted how they envied Gilad Shalit.
“You know what I was jealous of and why I congratulated him on his country?” she continued. “Because of the way humans are valued in his homeland.”
She wished she were lucky enough to have a homeland that, in sharp contrast to the way the Arab world treats its citizens, would fight day and night for her release. She wished she were important enough to be exchanged for multitudes just to be brought back home.
And she is not the only one who noticed this.
“The whole world is watching, not just your country,” she concluded.
I only hope and pray that this is true.
Abigail Pickus’ column appears the first week of the month.