While the average 19-year-old worries about college applications and job hunting, from 2006 onwards, Israel Defense Forces Sgt. Gilad Schalit spent his time wondering whether he would live to see his family again, or if he would die behind enemy lines, forgotten, abandoned by his country.
Captured on June 25, 2006 by Hamas in a cross-border raid in which two of his fellow platoon mates were killed, Schalit spent the next five years languishing in isolation and captivity; denied medical care, proper nourishment, and contact with his family. During these years, his family fought valiantly for his release, and with Noam Schalit, Gilad's father, at the helm, raised public awareness and created waves internationally as well as in Israel until the campaign succeeded.
After a series of tough negotiations, Schalit was released in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, including some convicted of multiple murders of Israeli civilians in horrendous terror attacks.
On the one-year anniversary of his release, Schalit embarked on a speaking tour in New York City and Connecticut, accompanied by 17 soldiers and several ranking officers from his old unit. Students from Columbia University, Yale University, Yeshiva University, Davis Renov Stahler Yeshiva High School for Boys, Magen David Yeshivah High School, and Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls were among the few people privileged with the opportunity to hear him speak and to pose questions to a panel of the soldiers.
The events were closed to the media, with Yale requiring a personal invitation and Yeshiva University restricting it to students and faculty. In addition, security measures were put in place and precautions were taken to prevent unauthorized video and still cameras from recording the events.
"To be honest, we had an easier time getting the White House chief of staff for speaking engagements at Yeshiva University," stated Mayer Fertig, head of public relations at the university.
"After going through such an experience, the damage is far more than physical, it can leave deep emotional and psychological scars that require time and therapy to properly heal," explained Israeli psychiatrist Dr. Natan B. "Pressure from the media to open up too soon, coupled with exposure to large crowds, can cause regression and delay recuperation. He is still frail; the last thing he needs is a negative comment pertaining to the exchange or a snide remark; that would be enough to overwhelm him or trigger a breakdown."
Contrary to public opinion, the trip was far from a pleasure trip or public relations event for the Israel Defense Forces. "It is essential to remember one important thing," Dr. Chagit Hadar, Schalit's contact and the organizer of the Magen David School event, says. "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 the 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."
The doctor further explained that, though the public remains unaware of this, the unit as a whole was affected psychologically by the abduction. The young soldiers lost two members of their unit, saw three others suffer serious injuries, and watched as a third was kidnapped, knowing all the while that they were helpless to control the situation. 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 Schalit's unit. "We want to go on with our lives."
Aside from the trip's therapeutic value, unit members felt that their message was important for the Jewish community to hear. "This final mission my company is taking is not just on behalf of Israeli Jews, but on behalf of international Jewry as well," said Yoav.
Despite the hassle involved in bringing the Israeli soldier to speak in the United States, program organizers felt it was well worth the effort. The university appearances were one of the first times that both Gilad and his fellow soldiers opened up about the events that occurred on the day of the raid and the efforts to release their fellow comrade.
Yeshiva University's Lamport auditorium was packed with students who posed questions to the soldiers. Members of the unit spoke briefly; their statements translated by Yeshiva University senior Daniel Green, who served as an officer in the IDF.
"The message provided was one of hope and courage," said 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 toward my enlistment date after graduation."
Yale students as well were touched by the presentation. "I went out of curiosity," stated one student who wished to remain anonymous. "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 was the first high school to host Schalit, inviting representatives from other schools in the Jewish community. The students posed various questions about the kidnapping, which were answered by Schalit 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 the IDF is to leave no man behind. If injured or captured, we do our best to save each soldier — even at risk to ourselves. 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 was about moral dilemmas in the field. The soldiers described a harrowing experience on a tank mission in which armed terrorists surrounded themselves with children acting as human shields. The situation was a Catch-22: The unit could hold fire, risk 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. "The 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 prickles 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," stated a soldier.
When Gilad was asked how he passed his time in captivity, his answer was surprising. "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, a 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 and Gilad's final appearance at Davis Renov Stahler Yeshiva High School for Boys. "I see him as a hero," she exclaimed. "He was able to return with such pride for Israel, despite that it was his nationality that 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 on 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, Schalit and his unit were honorary guests at a Friday night dinner hosted by Congregation Ahaba Ve Ahva, where they were presented with sunglasses and watches donated by members of the congregation. Rabbi Eric Mizrachi spoke on the weekly Torah portion, focusing on Cain's question: "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."