He seldom saw sunlight; now he’s basking in all the limelight that New York City
has to offer.
Gilad Schalit, the IDF soldier who languished in captivity
in the Gaza Strip for more than five years, spent several days in the Big Apple
last week and apparently loved every minute of it.
On Wednesday, he
dropped by The New York Times headquarters to be interviewed about his new gig
as a sports commentator for Yediot Aharonot. Shortly afterward, he was off to
see a taping of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart nearby. Though the Jewish-
American host of the popular fake news program would probably love to have him
on as a guest, this time Schalit – who is yet to speak at length with the press
about his ordeal – sat in the audience, giggling away at the jokes poking fun at
things such as Fox News and the dispute over whether Hebrew National hot dogs
are kosher or not.
Schalit has been in the US for the past couple of
weeks covering the NBA finals, which the Miami Heat won the Thursday before
last. The Mitzpe Hila native’s New York jaunt seemed focused on fun, but he also
remembered he had dues to pay. On Thursday, he visited the midtown offices of
the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, one of the
many groups that tirelessly lobbied for his release. Malcolm Hoenlein, the
executive vice chairman of the organization, gave him a warm welcome before
introducing him to a room packed with well-wishers.
“He’s very shy – by
nature shy – but very pleasant,” Hoenlein told The Jerusalem Post over the
phone. “He expressed appreciation. We showed him a short video of our activities
[campaigning for his release]. He said he knew of some of the reports that he
heard from Arab radio.”
David Bratslavsky, who works for the Conference
and attended the event, said Schalit did not discuss his captivity, except for
saying that his love of sports helped him get through it. The ex-tank gunner
displayed humility throughout the meeting despite his celebrity, Bratslavsky
“It’s more like something he has to deal with and not something he
seeks,” Bratslavsky wrote in an email.
“My impression was that he’s more
concerned with living life, making up for lost time, and, for the moment, his
Hoenlein said his guest took questions from the
One person reportedly asked Schalit who was gaunt and pale
after Hamas released him last October 18 – if he had put on weight. (Hoenlein
said he still seemed “very thin.”) Hoenlein presented Schalit with a volume
containing “Letters to Gilad,” tens of thousands of messages sent to him during
his captivity, and a volume of Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot).
25-year-old felt more comfortable sharing his hopes for the future than speak
about his past. He was quoted as saying he planned to pursue a career in sports
journalism while studying for a degree. Before he left, he posed for photos that
quickly started appearing on social media.
“I’m so confused,” one person
commented on a photo, featuring a smiling Schalit, that was uploaded to
“Why is everyone posting photos of themselves with Gilad
Schalit today?” The spotlight on Schalit since he was released in return for
more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners last October may seem strange to an
outsider, but not to Israelis and Jewish Americans who worried about his
well-being for so long. Abducted by Palestinians in a cross-border raid in 2006,
the campaign for his release was in the news for years. Schalit’s image became
ubiquitous, appearing on billboards and bumper stickers. He was oft-mentioned in
Shabbat prayers and on Passover some families paid him the respect reserved only
for Elijah, leaving him a symbolic empty seat next to the glass of wine
traditionally put aside for the biblical prophet in case he
The Schalit family’s ordeal and that of other Israeli soldiers
abducted by the nation’s foes over the years even inspired a TV show, Hatufim
(“Prisoners of War”). It, in turn, was made into the critically acclaimed US
The massive media attention surrounding Schalit and the
price paid for his release was criticized by pundits and relatives of terror
victims, who said Israeli society’s concern for a single soldier was being
crudely exploited by its enemies.
As awful as Schalit’s experience was,
he could be considered lucky when compared to the other crew members that were
in his tank on June 25, 2006. Two of his comrades – Barak Hanan and Pavel
Slutzker – were shot dead by Palestinians when they left their Merkava Mark III
after it was struck by a missile. A third, the driver, sustained wounds and
stayed trapped inside until he was evacuated.
He has since remained
Schalit, who was wounded in the attack but could move, climbed
outside the blazing vehicle and was forcibly marched into the Gaza
Many soldiers who are held captive for years are haunted by the
memories long after they are freed. For Schalit, the line that separated fame
and anonymity, life and death, was thin. It would appear that Schalit is doing
well. When someone at the Conference of Presidents reminded him the anniversary
of his capture had passed a few days earlier, the former hostage said he was so
busy that he had forgotten.
“I wished to him that he would forever stay
this busy,” Hoenlein said.