The return to Zion has been a trope in Jewish history for more than 3,000 years. It pertains to the people Israel itself. And it applies also to individual Jews, both in the abstract and in the tactile, as a matter of conscience and as a fact of communality. You will know already from my other writings just how much I pity those Jews who are alienated from these considerations or, worse yet, haven’t the slightest idea of what I mean. Of course, ignorance of one’s past can excuse a lot. But it’s not a satisfying answer to inquiring children. Good luck to those who feel they can wing it.
Gilad Shalit’s return to Israel after nearly five years and four months in captivity to Hamas, the official and unembarrassed terrorist wing of the Palestinian movement, and incommunicado even to the International Red Cross (which has a mortifying record of utter indifference to the Jewish prisoners in the concentration camps of another totalist ideology to live down), was experienced by Israel as a whole, by Israel in its home, and by Israel in its dispersion. As The New York Times aptly pointed out, Shalit was the first captured Israeli soldier to be returned alive in 26 years. For those Jews who pray and especially for those who don’t really but try—which, in the present season, means just about all of Jewry, yes, this tiny remnant of 14 million living souls—the journey of Shalit back to his family and to his nation is a moment of celebration anda kind of victory. It is also a conflicted moment given the number of terrorists who were released at the same time; this line from Yehuda Amichai (cited by Rabbi Avraham Weiss in a commentary on Shalit) sums up the situation perfectly: “A person needs to love and hate at the same moment. To laugh and cry with the same eyes. … To make love in war and war in love.”
I am back in Israel myself, having arrived on Monday, and thus able to experience the éclat of the reunion. There is a sense in the streets and in the cafes that, aside from the torment suffered by the isolated young sergeant, his restoration to his mother and father and to the wider fellowship of his people was a penitential happening. Frankly, it’s hard to grasp and harder to convey the sense that Shalit’s ordeal was a social phenomenon that bound Israel and Jewry together. After all, Israel is a complicated—no, intricate—society with interest groups and motives of all sorts, some rough and even selfish, some tender and even silly, some reasonable and fraternal. One reason why most of Israel, almost all of Israel, thrilled to this summer’s taking to the streets was that it represented a vast number of the country’s citizenry and its aim was social union. There was no violence, although there was occasional ideological rancor. But the essence of it, mirabili dicta, was democratic communalism, private initiative, and patriotism. There is no country I know with so strong a mesh of individualism and cooperative sentiment at its core. That’s why love of country, true love of country, is an ideal to which virtually every Israeli Jew adheres. I cannot imagine in Israel a confrontation between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, with two nutcase scenarios, each guaranteed to fail. “Hatikvah” still commands the heartstrings that, alas, “The Star-Spangled Banner” does not quite command.
It is true that over the years many in the 20 percent of the Israeli population that is Arab have been increasingly alienated from the whole. Some of this is attributable to small, very small, even tiny neo-fascist elements among Jews in the country. But, believe me, no crime committed by even those Jews against a Muslim mosque or an Arab olive grove can be compared—or should be—with the murders that are more or less routinely committed by Palestinian patriots. For example, less than a month ago, a car pursued by rocks (no one admits to throwing the rocks) was overturned and its 25 year-old Israeli driver and his one year-old son were dead when the dust settled. There are plenty of references to this incident in the ordinary news aggregators. No mention that I can find in the Times. You probably also recall the Fogel family, five of whom were killed by butcher-knife-wielding men at their house. A three-month-old boy was one of the victims. Presumably, he would grow up to be a Zionist. There are plenty of accounts of this one. There was a YouTube clip of the bloody evidence. Too violent, I suppose.
But not too violent for Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. He’s been serving for more than two years since his term ran out. But that’s okay with nearly everyone except Hamas which, in any case, is the hero of the hour, having kidnapped Shalit in the first place and then playing high stakes diplomacy for his release and the so-to-speak reciprocal release of 1,027 Palestinians, a bit less than half in Tuesday’s transaction and the rest in about two months. Abbas welcomed the freed prisoners: “Your sacrifice and hard work were not in vain. … You freedom fighters and holy warriors worked for the sake of God and the holy land.”
I did not find any reports yet from the wider Arab world of the response to the diplomatic victory registered by Hamas who, as it happens, promised more of the same. But the near-frostbite of the Egyptian Arab Spring leaves little room for joy and solidarity. The Syrian death count threnody goes on and on. The Yemeni conflagration gets worse, and even we Americans can’t really tell whether the ally we are helping is worthy of our help. King Abdullah of Jordan has for the second time in eight months dismissed his premier and hired himself another—when, in fact, the issue is His Majesty himself. But if he leaves the only option for Jordan would be another Palestine—that’s three Palestines and still no constituted Palestinian people. You’ll have to figure out the Libyan condition by yourself.
Terrorists don’t keep accurate or faithful statistics on their achievements. But, according to the Israeli press, the heroes of the Palestinian mob murdered at least 500 Israeli civilians, maimed and wounded many hundreds more, and left so many families and communities torn that these men (and some two dozen women) must belong in some macabre book of world records. We will see how many of these criminals return by habit, by ingrained character, and by ideological belief to their crimes. My guess is that within months there will be at least several who will have returned to this horrifying work.
Still, the Israeli population triumphed over this realistic anxiety and in the end did not leave a single living son in the hands of the enemy. It is a brave act, carried out over a long five years.
After Shalit crossed out of Gaza into Egypt, the Cairo government, such as it is, played a shabby trick by forcing him to be questioned at a full-fledged press conference—as if he could answer honestly rather than in strained dilpomatese in the process. He was asked how he was treated during his incarceration in Gaza. Would you answer truthfully when you are still in the hands of an Arab government that is not Hamas but is maneuvering in a way the last regime did not to be on the best of terms with it? In the end, the truth came out. Anyone could see that Shalit was starved for Vitamin C. His wounds from explosives were not tended to in the aftermath of his kidnapping. He limped. He was woefully thin.
A curious footnote emerged in the last days of the negotiations. And it is one that is, as they say, curiouser and curiouser. The president of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres, can’t shut up when he has nothing to say and he can’t shut up when he should remain quiet. I don’t know which case exactly this one is. But he leaked to journalists who live off leaks that he had contacts with the Turks that paved the path or were paving the path for a diplomatic breakthrough. In any case, I don’t believe it. But I don’t believe anything that President Peres says—most especially his old invention of “the new middle east.” It looks pretty ragged to me.
Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.