Gilad Shalit, the former IDF tank crewman who spent more than five years in captivity in Gaza, will visit Canada as a guest of the Jewish National Fund in September. According to JNF CEO Josh Cooper, Shalit’s appearance should fill all four venues in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver.
“The response to it has been overwhelmingly positive,” Cooper said.
But a negative note was sounded in the Jewish Tribune, the B’nai Brith paper, which stated his invitation was getting “mixed reaction” and which wondered if he was the right person to become “a new Israeli icon.”
Shalit was captured by Hamas gunmen in June 2006 while on duty near the Gaza border. Two of his fellow crewman were killed in the attack. The sequence of events was recounted in a detailed article in the Jerusalem Post by Israeli military veteran Ben Caspit, who questioned whether Shalit could have done more to avoid capture.
As negotiations for his release ground on, Israeli society debated intensely the wisdom of trading security prisoners with blood on their hands for Shalit. The families of terrorism victims made a poignant case that the lives of their loved ones would be cheapened by the release of the killers.
The issue was raised against negotiating with terrorists, that those who were released would continue to target Israelis and that giving in would merely incentivize further kidnappings.
In the end, Israeli society lined up solidly behind those who favoured a prisoner exchange. Parents and soldiers were grateful that the government would not abandon them, even if the cost of their release was substantial. It also conformed to the Jewish concept of pidyon shvuyim, ransoming hostages.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to the swap. At the time, he penned a letter to the families of terrorist victims: "Dear families, I write to you with a heavy heart. I understand and know your pain…The state of Israel does not abandon its soldiers and citizens."
So, is there any validity to the criticism that Shalit is no hero?
For many, it is an uncomfortable question. Can anyone who has not served in the military know or understand all the circumstances that led to a soldier’s capture? And can you criticize someone who did not try to avoid a dangerous assignment and was just doing his duty on Israel’s front line?
Writing in the Jerusalem Post, lone soldier Ilan Mann, a Canadian, stated, “Almost a third of Israelis of drafting age avoid military service altogether, and the majority who do serve do not do so in combat units, for one reason or another, Shalit went above and beyond to protect his country. What could be more heroic?”
“Shalit has, after a ferociously arduous service, returned to the arms of the Jewish people, unbent and unbroken; let’s give him the hero’s welcome he deserves,” Mann wrote.
As far as Cooper is concerned, reaction to Shalit’s speaking tour was far from “mixed.” In fact, some communities left out of the speaking tour are hoping to get included, he said.
Cooper sat down for lunch with Shalit in Israeli recently and found him “a gentle soul. He’s a really nice young man who’s looking ahead in life.”
During their lunch, strangers came up to Shalit asking to take a picture with him.
Shalit’s trip to Canada is his way of thanking all the people who supported him during his captivity, Cooper said.
Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), said Shalit has become a symbol.
“I think we have to recognize Gilad Shalit on two levels,” he said. “The first is Gilad Shalit the individual who suffered for years as a POW under exceedingly difficult circumstances.” On his release, people were shocked to see that he could barely walk, he noted.
“He suffered the experience because he was an Israeli soldier, a Jewish soldier defending the Jewish state.”
“Second,” Fogel continued, “he represented the very ethos that the Jewish state, Israel and the Jewish community in the Diaspora will do what it can do, however wrenching, to secure the release of those who served the state.”
The exchange was painful at the time, acknowledged Fogel. But, “it’s not for us to second guess it. In the end, Israelis rallied in unprecedented numbers behind pidyon shvuyim, to secure his release. In the final analysis, when the government took the step it did, there wasn’t dissent.”
“I think bringing Gilad Shalit to Canada is a tremendous opportunity to engage and celebrate life. We never leave anybody behind, and we didn’t,” Cooper stated. “I don’t think there was a Jewish person on the planet who didn’t pray for his safe return, and now we have it.”
The CJN print edition returns August 1.