The last month witnessed a “human flotilla” supporting the family of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Tens of thousands of ordinary Israelis left the cool comfort of their homes and the glare of their television sets during the Mondial (Soccer World Cup) to march with Noam and Aviva Shalit from Mitzpe Hila in the North of Israel to the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. Their son Gilad has been in captivity in Gaza for more than four years. As Maimonides said “There is no greater mitzvah than ransoming captives” (pidyon shvuyim).
A debate rages in Israel and across the Jewish world whether the State of Israel should negotiate with terrorists. Further, whether the Jewish State should release hundreds of convicted murderers for one Israeli soldier. The debate deepens if you consider this moral and mortal dilemma from Noam Shalit’s point of view. He argues that we must change the parameters of the debate. We should not ask how many or which prisoners to free in exchange for Gilad’s freedom, but the starker question: Will we let Gilad Shalit die?
What is just as stark is that ordinary Israelis marched alongside the Shalit family and sent a message of solidarity and empathy to the governing authorities in Israel. A letter I received from a community member, from her own family in Israel, highlights the power of the “March for Gilad.” (It’s shortened and edited, below.)
“There is a big discussion in Israel if Israel should ‘pay a price’ of 1,000 terrorists freed for one soldier. This has been going on for four years while his family couldn’t care less – just get the kid home. Now, after the Gaza flotilla, the family has given up hoping that the government will do something. They decided to work on the power of public opinion. They started a march from their home in the North Galil, on the day that Gilad ‘celebrated’ four years of being held hostage, until they got to the home of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, where they camped out. Every day about 2,000 to 4,000 people escorted the family. I wanted to join the march, but was afraid I would not be able to keep up the pace; I thought it would be nice to organize a refreshment station at the village entrance on their way to Netanya.
“I suggested this at a meeting on Monday night and everyone was for it. I then got in touch with the march headquarters – they said go ahead – then phoned the police. (We would block the road to Netanya; they said go ahead, we will be there to help.) Then I looked for volunteers to help run the station and decorate it with yellow ribbons and yellow balloons (‘tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree’). We had a big banner at the village entrance (the printer made it for free), and other villages on the route asked to join. They brought a big milk tank that contains 800 liters of cold water and 150 yellow balloons. We got the ribbons, cookies and cake, paper cups, garbage bags, tables. We all were there at the entrance setting up and decorating at 7 a.m. Cars would pass us by honking and cheering – they knew what this was for.
“The day before I went to a bakery saying I need cookies. The baker asked me how much money I had: 500 shekels. I wanted to take the cookies with me, but the baker said, ‘I’ll bring you fresh-baked cookies and double the amount.’ By 8 a.m., the cookies were at our station, freshly baked and smelling wonderful. ‘This is the least I can do for the family,’ he said.
“We have a wonderful choir in the village – world-known – called the Moran Choir. The elementary school kids, who sing in the children’s choir, also wanted to sing. They were ready with playback and mikes at the eastern village gate. They got lots of applause and thanks from the family.
“By 9:30 a.m., the police called me to say there were 17,000 people marching. I said we can only offer what we have. By this time some of the 60-plus elderly came and started handing out cold water to this never-ending mass of people. The police stopped the traffic to Netanya. A big truck came into the village, where the marchers were resting, and gave out fruit, cake, and juice. People sat all over the place, on the road, on the sidewalks, in the gardens of houses, having their snack, filling up their water bottles , saying hi to friends – a real happening. It was unbelievable.
“I was looking for Noam and Aviva Shalit to bring them water. I couldn’t get through. They were sitting in the shade in one of the gardens. And then the police said it was time to move on. Everyone sat around until the Shalit family came out and started marching. In one minute the whole crowd stood up, made way, and started clapping. It was so moving. We were all here for them, to support them in their very complicated situation, knowing that we really cannot imagine what their life is like for the last four years, and who knows how much longer. But they are determined to fight for their son, and we all were there to support them. No one wants another case like Ron Arad’s.
“So many people really can get anything done if they just get together and agree on the goal. Again, it goes to show how nice Israelis really are, but unfortunately only when they are pushed to the edge. In the words of a song by Naomi Shemer, ‘Good people in the middle of the road,/ Very good people./Good people in the middle of the road,/With them you should march on!’
“I do not think this will make a difference in the eyes of the decision-makers of Israel, but I know that I and the rest of the volunteers and marchers tried to give strength to parents who are in a situation that no one ever should be in – in any place in the world.”