After 5 dark years, Schalit takes in NY limelight

Former captive IDF soldier is taking a big bite out of the Big Apple giving interviews to the Grey Lady, attending Daily Show taping.

Schalit Maccabi 390 (photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters))
Schalit Maccabi 390
(photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters))
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 said.
“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 sports writing.”
Hoenlein said his guest took questions from the audience.
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).
The 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 Facebook.
“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 reappears.
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 show Homeland.
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 anonymous.
Schalit, who was wounded in the attack but could move, climbed outside the blazing vehicle and was forcibly marched into the Gaza Strip.
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.