Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Accidental Hero

Like everyone else in this country, I was glued to the television all day. Despite having worked 24 hours straight on call and total exhaustion, I just couldn't go to sleep. So if this post seems a bit incoherent, please forgive me. I was compelled to watch Gilad's homecoming. Like many, I was incensed by the insensitivity of the Egyptians trying to cash in on a scoop with this clip of Shalit being interviewed by an Egyptian Cow. The interview was conducted without the consent of the Israeli side. The claim that Gilad consented is trite. He was still in the mindset of a captive. But in retrospect, the Cow did us a great favor. This unassuming young man has emerged a bona fide hero. He was kept in solitary confinement for over 5 years, he is emaciated and malnourished, lacks vitamin D due to the lack of sunlight, and had some obvious injury to his left hand. Surprisingly he seemed in good spirits. In addition it seems to me that he did not develop the Stockholm Syndrome
He kept his wits and answered eruditely to all questions. Even when the Cow tried to trap him into a political question about working to release Pali prisoners, he said the right thing: That he would be happy for their release provided they stop their violence.
I was astounded. After 5 years of contact only with his barbarian captors and with no opportunity for intelligent conversation, this remarkable young man showed the world his true mettle.
If a hero can be defined as an ordinary person performing extraordinarily in extraordinary circumstances, than I posit that Gilad Shalit is a hero. What joy for all of us, but especially his family to have him returned. Despite my own reservations concerning the prisoner swap, today is a day for joy. Tomorrow we can debate and argue about the price we paid for his return. The contrast with the vile thugs and murderers that were released is blinding. (No, I will not sully my blog with images of those vile fiends.) Shalit is thin and pale. The terrorists are well fed and tan. They had family visits, good food and excercise. Shalit had none of these. So let's just state for the record, our enemies are war criminals, barbarians, amoral and despicable. What comforts me, is that with Gilad's return, we received a treasure, while the Hamas and the PA received a heap of crap.
I was also happy to see that Gilad upon arrival in Israel dressed in his uniform. I intuitively feel that it is important that he make a necessary gradual transition from a military life to a civilian one. He is, after all, still a soldier. I was proud to see the symbol of the tank regiment we have both served. I hope he is still proud too.
Of all the emotional images today that literally brought me to tears, this one is my favorite:

It is the very first moment of the first embrace between father and son after over 5 years. It is a very powerful image precisely because we don't see their faces. And that makes it all the more intimate.
Gilad Shalit, comrade-in-arms, fellow citizen and fellow Jew: Welcome home. I salute and embrace you, an accidental hero.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Over The Abyss

נוטה צפון על תוהו תולה ארץ על בלימה
(איוב כו, ז)
He spreads out the northern [skies] over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing.
(Job 26:7)

Deja Vu.
Two years ago, during the Succoth holiday I posted about the connection between Gilad Shalit and Succoth. This time the rumor and the hope seem to lead to freedom, God willing. How fitting, since Succoth celebrates the freedom of the Children of Israel from the Bondage of Egypt. The whole country is overjoyed with the news. No one can be apathetic to the suffering of Shalit and his family. Yet the joy is bittersweet. It is tainted. Because to gain his freedom, we have to release over 1000 vile terrorists. We know our enemies, they see this as a victory, and it will spur them to kidnap again. It seems that one Jew is worth 1000 Muslims. But not one of those savage barbarians is worth even a hair on Shalit's head. While we celebrate and cherish and sanctify life, they celebrate, cherish and sanctify death. Choose life, we are commanded. If Shalit has suffered Job-like tribulations, I cannot say, but he has suffered. And our leaders have, finally, chosen life for Shalit.

One thing I have in common with Shalit: I served in the same tank regiment (the "Barak" regiment) during my service over a decade after the Yom Kippur War. I imagine that soldiers of the regiment today have been raised as I had, on stories of the tragic destruction of the regiment as they stood almost alone against several Syrian divisions. The horrific tank battles on the Golan Heights and the halting of the Syrian onslaught have since become legend.

Two years ago, just before Succoth, a book was published that described the true story of that regiment during the war. The title of the book "Al Blima" (Over Nothing, or Over the Abyss) is taken from Job. The rather esoteric passage describes the ancient cosmological architecture of the world. But "Blima" can also mean "halting". And in military terms, there is a type of battle tactic (krav blima) that aims to halt the enemy to enable one's forces to regroup. So the title holds that double meaning. The book describes in excruciating detail, the actions of the regiment even down to the individual tank and soldier. One might find this tedious, but there is tension because the tale is true. Almost all the officers and tank commanders were killed or wounded yet the regiment held the enemy at bay. There is also interesting criticism of some of the decisions of the upper echelons. In particular, Gen. Yanosh Ben Gal (then the commander of the sister regiment) was criticised for disobeying an order to reinforce the Barak regiment with one of his battalions. To his credit, Ben Gal had the fortitude to answer the criticism in an on-line forum that appeared shortly after the book was released. He explained that he was closer to the action than his superior officers, and he realised that the battalion would have been sent on a suicide mission. So he wanted to maintain his strength for the battles that were sure to follow in his sector of the Heights. Of those battles is the famous "Vale of Tears" battle where Israeli and Syrian tanks were intermingled on the battlefield in what could only be described as hand-to-hand combat in tanks. The savage battle ended in an Israeli victory, but left many scars.

"Al Blima" overturns our concept of the demise of a regiment. Its greatest contribution is that it sets the story straight and returns honor to the name of the regiment, because the regiment was not destroyed, it did not falter nor did it fail. Rather, like the Phoenix, it arose from the ashes, and with replenished manpower, participated in the offensive that finally drove the Syrian divisions back and defeated them.

I am proud of my service in the "Barak" Regiment, and I hope that Shalit is too. Though I suspect that he might feel, justifiably so, that we failed him by letting him languish in that Hamas hell for so long.

Coincidentally, Saul Bellow's first novel "Dangling Man" was translated into Hebrew as "Al Blima". That book describes in diary form the frustrations of an unemployed man waiting to be drafted just before WW II. Gilad Shalit has been dangling over the abyss. And now, he has been pulled up, back into the arms of his loving family, and the embrace of a relieved nation.
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