When a son’s life is in jeopardy, families close ranks and hug their children a lot.Parents attending last week’s 6th grade graduation ceremony at the Tali Gimmel School in Ma’aleh Adumim might have been misty-eyed at the site of their ‘babies’ moving on to junior high.
But that wasn’t the reason I had tears in my eyes. It wasn’t just the usual sentimentality of watching your children grow up. What got to me was looking out at my 12-year-old son Koby and the 70 other graduates and seeing 70 young versions of Gilad Shalit standing in front of me.
Last week’s capture of Cpl. Shalit by Hamas members and the resultant effect on Israeli society had an eerie sense of familiarity about it – perhaps because it’s a situation that’s been repeated so many times since I’ve lived here.
A soldier is apprehended by terrorists and the people undergo an immediate transformation – from an argumentative, splintered bunch of subcultures into one big, concerned family.
Everybody can identify with the Shalit family as they wait to hear word of their son’s fate, because we’ve all either been in the army, or have parents, children or neighbors serving.
There’s no distance whatsoever when you see Shalit’s photo flashed on the TV screen or in the newspapers, or that of his father stoically standing outside the family home in the Galilee. That’s our son being held, that’s us being interviewed – because it could happen to any of us.
Looking out at the sparkling group of boys and girls (children, really, with barely even a glint of teen maturity in them), I was struck by the thought that in six short years, they would be Gilad Shalit, wearing uniforms, carrying weapons, and defending their country.
Imagine the transformation they would be going through in these next six years to turn them into soldiers, I thought. Or maybe not. Perhaps Gilad Shalit, held today in captivity with his condition and fate cloudy, has a lot more in common with the 12-year-olds who were dancing and singing on the basketball court of the schoolyard than is apparent. When did he stop playing with Pokemon cards, or action figures? Maybe five years ago? Maybe less.
Even though Shalit’s capture was noted by some of the school speakers at the ceremony – temporarily creating a somber feeling – the overall atmosphere was one of celebration and joy. Despite Shalit undoubtdedly being on the mind of every parent, the prevalent but unspoken message reflected in the upbeat ceremony and student-performed entertainment was ‘our lives are going to carry on no matter what they try to do to us.’
Tonight, I’m going to attend another graduation ceremony, this one my daughter’s high school graduation. There’s nothing theoretical about this one – it’s real time. These are the Gilad Shalits of tomorrow. Sometime in the next year, she and most of her classmates will be inducted in the IDF and begin active service.
But at tonight’s gala, the graduates won’t be full of apprehension, fear, or anger that the next two or three years of their lives are going to in khaki, and instead of attending keg parties and classes, they’ll be the front line against Israel’s enemies. It will be full of posh gowns, makeup, suits and ties, and starry-eyed triumph. Tomorrow they may be soldiers, but tonight they’re free young men and women.
When I joined the IDF in 1990, as a 30-year-old immigrant with a female toddler at home, I remember thinking that there’s a good chance that by the time she turns 18, there would be a solution to the ongoing strife in our region, and our daughters and sons will no longer be required to perform their army service.
That Pollyanna, naïve vision never had a chance in the ensuing years, and today we still find ourselves in the situation where I find myself looking out at a sea of 12-year-olds and seeing soldiers. Any of them could end up like Gilad Shalit, or worse, like yeshiva student Eliyahu Asheri, 18, from Itamar, who was murdered by terrorists last week after being abducted while hitchhiking.
In the current situation, when the life of a young man like Shalit’s is hanging in the breeze, Israeli families hunker down, close ranks and do a lot of hugging of our children. We’ll have to let go of them soon enough, much too soon actually, for them to be sent off to play life and death games.
That could be why the tears rolled during Koby’s graduation – not because he and his classmates are inevitably going to be in the army, and their wide-eyed, accepting view of the world is going to be replaced rapidly by guard duty, reconnaissance patrols and constant vigilance. But because, of all the things that are most troubling about our ongoing struggles to protect our existence, the fact that we are forced to take away our children’s innocence before its time is the most heartbreaking.
I’m sure that’s what many Israelis felt when they saw the photos of Shalit and Asheri in the papers. Because whether our offspring are gawky 12-year-olds awkwardly doing a line dance on a makeshift basketball court as they cross the threshold into their teen years, or elegantly dressed 18-year-olds feeling that their whole lives are ahead of them, they’re still just children… our children. Perhaps that’s why, when one of those children meets peril, the country becomes one – in the offices, in the grocery store, on the busses, and in the street.
And it’s why we listen to the hourly news updates about Gilad Shalit’s fate as if he were a member of our family. Because his fate is entwined with our own, and those of our children. May he come home safely.