One on One: His mother, her son

Miki Goldwasser reminisces about Udi's life, rages over Gilad Schalit's captivity, and reiterates her love for the land and people of Israel.

Miki Goldwasser 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Miki Goldwasser 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It has been just over nine months since Ehud (Udi) Goldwasser was buried in his home town of Nahariya. But his mother, Miki, still hasn't completely internalized the fact that he is gone. Nor had she really believed he was dead up until the minute she saw his coffin and that of Eldad Regev - the other reservist whose abduction by Hizbullah terrorists along the border with Lebanon sparked the Second Lebanon War - emerge from the plane that transported the bodies back to Israel as part of a prisoner swap: two slain IDF soldiers for five Lebanese prisoners, among them arch-murderer Samir Kuntar, and the remains of 199 other terrorists. It is the kind of deal that Miki Goldwasser and her husband, Shlomo, both 63, have been hoping and praying will return Hamas captive Gilad Schalit to his frantic parents while he is still alive. It is both the Goldwassers' loss and their activism on behalf of Schalit that spurred this Remembrance Day interview. But Miki made her conditions very clear: One, that she wanted to reminisce about Udi; and two, that she would only discuss Gilad after receiving permission from his family to do so. Her ultimate - nay only - goal, she insisted, was to help the cause of furthering his release. The interview was conducted during Hol Hamoed Pessah at the Goldwassers' apartment in Nahariya, where Udi and his two younger brothers, Yair and Gadi, were born and raised, other than during stints in South Africa, where Shlomo, a retired merchant ship captain was stationed during different periods. In fact, it was in South Africa that Shlomo first saw the report on CNN that the soldiers had been kidnapped. This was mere months after Udi's wedding to Karnit, which the Goldwassers attended before returning abroad. It is Udi the groom whose blown-up image fills the living room with a winning grin - the smile of a man who has just married the love of his life for the past nine years. Below the photo, on a table, is a glass-covered encasement with the pins and ranks from the army uniform of the 31-year-old master's student at the Technion, now believed to have been killed on the spot during the attack that led to his abduction. What would you like to say about Udi? That he was a man who managed to do so much in his life, even though he was killed at the age of 31, that talking about him for days wouldn't suffice to describe who he is. That he was the first-born who had a wonderful childhood. That he didn't go to nursery school until he was three, but stayed home with me, and we discovered whole worlds together. That, even at such a young age, he was already walking around with a guide book that identified all species of plants, birds and insects. That, even at such a young age, he could identify the brand of every car on the road, and would teach me what they were. That he was a child who would see that someone had thrown an empty cigarette pack or a popsicle wrapping on the ground, and would pick it up and put it in the garbage can. That he would accompany his father, a captain, out to sea - since we made sure that the boys would take turns doing this during summer vacations. That he was a boy who loved music, who took piano lessons, and because he had perfect pitch, was able to learn all the pieces by listening to them - and it was only later that I discovered that he hadn't bothered learning to read music, when his piano teacher said he wasn't progressing at the pace he should have been. That he subsequently taught himself to play the guitar. That he was always reading anything he could get his hands on. That at the age of eight he joined an aviation club, and kept up that interest until the day he died. That though he was diagnosed as a gifted child, he didn't want to attend a special school, because he said he wanted to stay with his friends. That he was a photographer and a motorcyclist, who also received a diving and a yachting certificate. That he married the love of his life, Karnit, with whom he had been for nine years. That, in the 10 months until his abduction [he completed] his first academic degree and begin a second in environmental engineering. That he had so many friends and was able to make time for them, no matter how busy he was. And all of this barely scratches the surface of who he was. Speaking of his friends, was this the reason he didn't want to go with you to, or stay in, South Africa when he was a boy? Yes, and it was a real problem. It took me a long time to persuade him to come with us. I received psychological counseling, and I was told that if he didn't acclimatize, I would have to enable him to return to Israel. I agreed. When we arrived in South Africa, he began introducing himself to people by saying, "Hello, my name is Udi Goldwasser. In three months, I'm going back to Israel." So I kept saying to him, "Wait. Give it a chance. Maybe you'll get to like it here. Why are you trapping yourself? If you introduce yourself in this way, you won't allow yourself to change your mind." But he was determined not to stay there. I was able to postpone his leaving for a few more months, because of his bar mitzva. I told him that we didn't have the money to make a bar mitzva in Israel, and that if he wanted one, it would have to be in South Africa. By the way, in time, he admitted to me that he never would have been able to have that kind of bar mitzva in Israel. At his Jewish day school in South Africa, they made a very big fuss over each bar mitzva boy separately. They turned the bar mitzva boy into a veritable prince for three days, making a tremendous deal over his reading of the Torah for the first time. But after that, he went back to Israel to live with his aunt, whose youngest daughter was exactly his age, and they were like twins. He lived here for two years while we were there. Was that separation from him hard for you? Awfully hard. Raising a kid by remote control is terrible, because you don't really know what's going on with him. And indeed, there is this two-year gap of his life that I feel I missed out on. Was it his dream to become a combat soldier? Not really. His character is not combative. But I myself was raised in a very nationalistic household, and I passed this on to my own family. We spoke a lot about the love of Israel, about what it means to be a Jew and an Israeli and about the significance of settling the land. He decided that when it came time to serve in the IDF, he would do it in the best way he could. Initially, he got accepted to Palsar 7, an elite Givati unit. But when he got on the bus to go, it turned out that three kids with protektzia [connections] had been added, which meant he had to leave. He was really upset and disappointed at first. But it worked out in the end, because his company commander in a different unit admired and promoted him. After the army, when he was studying at the Technion and got called up for reserve duty during exam time, he refused to ask for a deferment, as everyone told him he should. He said, "If I don't go now, the other soldiers in my unit will be screwed." That kind of commitment, loyalty and responsibility on his part was very, very strong. Take the patrol he was on when he got kidnapped, for example. He wasn't supposed to be on it. But he was because of that sense of responsibility and commitment. Can you talk about the day you were told about his kidnapping? Ooh! So much ink has been spilled on that, and it's so hard for me to go back to that period. I feel as though I have to move forward. And thank God, I'm rarely in the newspapers any more, and the only time I'm seen on TV is in connection with Gilad [Schalit]. Let's talk about the connection with Gilad. What makes you feel it is your responsibility to fight for his release? First of all, it's the obligation of all the people of Israel. And I'm among those people. But, obviously, I have a closer connection to the issue, because we were three families who began this struggle together, and from my perspective, I don't see my own battle finished until Gilad is returned home. In other words, if you start something with someone, you have to finish it. I definitely see myself as obligated to the task as a whole, and certainly toward the Schalit family in particular. Has it been hard for you to hear or read criticism of the media's handling of the Schalit case, according to which the kind of pressure being exerted on the leadership is counterproductive, because it gives Hamas encouragement? Yes, it has been very hard for me, because the criticism is completely out of place in this case - for many reasons. First of all, for the two weeks between Gilad's abduction and my son's, what was done to return Gilad? Nothing. If something had been done, it's possible my son wouldn't even have been abducted. When you say "something," are you including a military operation? Possibly. If an operation had been launched in Gaza at the time, instead of in Lebanon, it could be that my son wouldn't have been abducted. But that's not the point. The point is that, during the two years during the course of which we began our struggle - in which the Schalit family took part - no progress was made regarding Gaza. Nor did Hamas change its demands even one iota. On July 1, 2006 - a week after Gilad was abducted - Hamas said it wanted the release of 450 terrorists in exchange for his return. Nothing has changed since then - don't let anyone tell you otherwise. To our great dismay, we discover each time anew that without the help of the media and the public, nothing here moves. That's true of any issue in this country, whether health care, the plight of the disabled or Holocaust survivors - everything. If public pressure is not exerted on the government, nothing gets done, because the ministers are impotent. They sit there on high, and I don't know what it is they do there, but whatever it is, it's not the things they should be dealing with. So, you do not believe that the ministers you call "impotent" have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to return Gilad in the best way possible? No, and I'll tell you something even harsher. If the government genuinely thought that public pressure would make negotiations for Gilad's release more difficult, why did the defense minister himself visit the tent [pitched by the Schalit family outside the Prime Minister's Residence]? Explain that to me! Ehud Barak himself came there! Barak, the highest minister, other than the prime minister, who has to deal with the issue of Schalit. If he really felt that public pressure was a hindrance, he would be the first to refrain from visiting the tent. What - was he doing that to harm the deal? Did he really think there wouldn't be media coverage of his visit? Of course he knew there would be. It was planned so that there should be - so that everyone could see how nice he was to show support for the Schalits. Let's face it: If Schalit fell, he fell because of status wars here at home - between [former prime minister Ehud] Olmert and [former foreign minister Tzipi] Livni, and Livni and Barak, and Barak and Olmert. Hamas for its part, from the first of July 2006, came out with a certain demand. Tami Arad [the wife of MIA Ron Arad] summed it up very nicely - and who, if not Tami, could do so. What she said was, OK, great. Argue over the number of terrorists traded. Succeed in a year's time to get the number down from 450 to 380. That's what will make a difference, while a boy sits in captivity for another year? What's going on here?! You're saying that the number of terrorists or other conditions set out by Hamas don't matter? I'm saying that even if those 450 don't return to Israel, do we imagine there won't be terrorism? I'm asking: Since the abductions, have people not been killed here in terrorist attacks? Of course they have. But what really irked me was hearing the prime minister say that he was already willing to concede on the number of terrorists, but Hamas didn't agree to our condition that they not return to Gaza or the Palestinian Authority - and that he has his "red lines." What kind of nonsensical "red lines" are those? In the age of the Internet, e-mails and cellphones, does it really matter whether one of these guys is sitting in Gaza or in Timbuktu? This kind of nonsense simply doesn't inspire trust in the government. Any government, or Olmert's? Is it possible that things will be different with the new Binyamin Netanyahu-led government? I wouldn't want to go into that here. I'd rather give Bibi the chance to prove himself. It's probably hard for you to remember yourself prior to your tragedy. But try and recall how you felt about these issues when they didn't involve you personally. Did you have the same views, for example, about Ron Arad - or did Udi's plight cause you to alter your position on prisoner swaps? With regard to Ron Arad, I'll be frank. I wasn't really active. When the public was asked to hold blue balloons, I did; when there were demonstrations on his behalf in our area, I attended them. But I wasn't involved the way I am today. Still, even then I believed that any price had to be paid for his return. Our value of not leaving a soldier behind in the field - the value that the state stands behind every soldier it sends into battle - is what I was raised on. Given your age and upbringing, weren't you raised on the value that every soldier has to be returned from the field by military means? Indeed, I always favored returning soldiers through military means. But we've had failures on that score, which led me to understand that it's not always the best method - that power isn't always the right answer - because in a rescue operation, another three or four soldiers could be killed. In other words, it is preferable to give in to the terrorists' demands. Look at Golda Meir's attitude. Golda swore that every person who was involved in the terrorist attack in Munich would be punished - and they were. Sometimes you have to be clever and use methods other than force, first entering into negotiations, and finding solutions later. But when hundreds of terrorists are released, doesn't that guarantee the abduction and/or murder of many more innocent people? On the contrary. The terrorists' will to abduct more people is greater now. Seeing that holding Schalit is not sufficient to get what they want from Israel gives them an incentive to kidnap others. Let's not kid ourselves. They are constantly trying to kidnap Israelis. That they don't always succeed is another issue, but it's not for lack of trying. We live under constant threat of increasing terrorism the world over. What are our politicians trying to do - pretend that this isn't so? And this is the Middle East, where you don't need to look far or hard to see what Islamic terrorism is. Did you ever discuss this subject with Udi? Not terrorism, specifically. But, intellectually, Udi was in favor of Jewish settlement in the territories. Would he have agreed with what you're saying about paying any price to return a soldier? I'm sure he would have. Did Karnit agree with Udi about settling the territories? I don't think she delved too much into that subject. Udi and I used to talk a lot about politics and in general about pride in Zionism and the Land of Israel. The reason I am asking this is because the debate surrounding prisoner exchanges is often divided along political lines, with the Left tending to favor paying any price for a kidnapped soldier, and the Right favoring rescue operations and other tough measures. In your case, you refer to yourself as nationalist, yet take the more liberal position. [Here Shlomo interrupts to answer:] When the public debate began at the time of the kidnappings, we were very, very careful not to express any opinion on how the problem should be solved. That the debate became political was natural, even healthy. It's a debate that should be taking place. But our position was that, ultimately, it is up to the decision-makers to do the best thing. For two years, you did not know whether Udi was alive or, in the event that he was, what condition he was in. Is there any comfort in finally knowing the truth, even if it is a tragic one? I am a realist. But until the moment I saw the coffins arrive, I believed that Udi and Eldad were alive. I thought they had been badly wounded, but that they were being treated - as I wanted to believe they were - because it was in the interest of the terrorists to keep them alive as better bargaining chips. That's how I viewed the situation until I saw the coffins. As for whether there is any comfort in the closure: To this day, it's sometimes as though I'm in a dream - as though the whole thing isn't over - and that Udi will still return. I haven't yet come to terms with the fact that he won't. I go the cemetery almost every day, yet I still haven't really absorbed it. There is something to be said for the year of mourning in Judaism. And we are soon approaching the year anniversary. In retrospect, after you saw the coffins, did it become important to you to know the exact details of Udi's death? No. But, I was told that, according to the findings, he probably was killed on the spot. This gives me some relief that he didn't suffer - and that he didn't suffer at the hands of the terrorists in captivity, through torture or whatever. If he already had to die, at least he did so without all that horror. If you had known that Udi was dead, would you still have favored the prisoner swap? Hmmm... probably not so strongly. Not at the price of [arch-terrorist] Samir Kuntar. He is, after all, responsible for the awful attack here in Nahariya, against someone I know personally. I think that if I knew with absolute certainty that Udi was dead - with actual proof - I would have forfeited the struggle and let things take their course, hoping that one day, in the framework of a body exchange, I could get his body back for burial. I can say that there is something important about having a grave to visit. Which leads to the question of how you felt about the January 29, 2004, swap with Hizbullah for the bodies of IDF soldiers Adi Avitan, Benny Avraham and Omar Sawayed - and of Israeli drug dealer Elhanan Tennenbaum. That was very frustrating, because while a soldier is sacred - a boy called to uphold the flag of his country - a grown man who makes the choice to deal in drugs abroad is another story entirely. On the other hand, I've been thinking a lot lately about this issue in another context. Many Israelis went to the Sinai for the Pessah holiday, in spite of specific warnings and admonitions on the part of the government and security forces not to do so. So I ask myself: What will happen if one of those vacationers is abducted? How would I react in such an event? And it's clear to me that I would want them returned, in spite of the frustration I would feel, since they knew of the risk and decided to take it. Still, they are Israelis who serve in the army, or whose children serve in the army, and they have to be returned home. It's a problem. But soldiers? There's no dilemma about that whatsoever. And it boils my blood that Gilad isn't back. Has your anger at the political echelon affected your feelings about the state or of the need to send other soldiers into battle? Absolutely not. There is no connection between politics and the state. We have one state - the State of Israel. My father came here from Poland in 1935, because they called him zhid [a derogatory word for Jew]. He didn't experience the Holocaust. He listened to [Revisionist-Zionist leader Ze'ev] Jabotinsky, and made aliya as a member of Betar. He spent a year here and then went back to Poland, where he married my mother and brought her back in 1936. He was a real nationalist, and I was raised accordingly. That hasn't changed for me. Politics is one thing; the state is another; and the people is yet another factor. The people of Israel are wonderful. I got to know this firsthand over the past two years. Before then, what did I know? I was a housewife. But then I began going all over the country and met people from all walks of life and ethnic or religious backgrounds. It is a simply amazing nation. Sometimes I think: To hell with all those ministries. We could toss them all, and hand their budgets over to the people. I'm telling you, the country would function 1,000 times better. If we ever got a worthy leadership, it would be able to lift this country to heights beyond belief. If that's your opinion of politics and leadership, why did you run for the city council? Weren't you hesitant to take part in the very dealings that you have an aversion to? Yes, but I didn't really enter politics in that sense. I became a representative of the public. That's why I didn't want a job in the municipality, or any portfolio. I wanted to be someone who could speak on behalf of the public, without owing anybody anything. What are the problems in Nahariya that you thought you could help alleviate? We have a serious problem with youth violence, many groups in socioeconomic distress and a large percentage of people on welfare. But my particular focus is the youth. And though there is a lot of wonderful activity going on here for them, there are not enough resources. How do kids respond to you? Does your personal story make them uncomfortable? No. What's great about kids is that what you see is what you get. And there's something about me that seems to connect with them. I'm not their friend - you know, the way a lot of adults try to befriend kids. No, I'm an adult who expects to be treated with respect - not because I'm Udi's mother, but because I have gray hair. At the same time, I treat them with all due respect as well. I make demands on them, give them no discounts. It's something they're not really used to, because today, young people are allowed to do anything they want. What kind of demands do you make on them? I'll give you an example. The youth council received a budget, and they began to list all of the things they wanted to do with the money - you know, hire a DJ, an orchestra, this, that and the other thing. I said, "It's all very well and good for you to want these things. But what are you prepared to give in exchange? I want to see you doing things, not just wanting and receiving." It's a language they weren't used to hearing. But it's something I believe they need. I brought my own children up to understand that they can't just receive; they have to give as well. Another example: The junior high/high school in Nahariya is in terrible shape. True, it's very old, and there's nothing you can do about that. But inside it's depressing, which tells you something about who's running it. So I went to the student council and I asked, "Tell me, kids, how do you feel when you come to school?" I told them that, personally, I found it depressing. They all nodded and agreed. So I said, "Well, excuse me, what do you expect - that someone will come along and take care of it for you? Have you no initiative? Did it ever occur to you to decorate it yourselves? You've got an honor-roll graphics class, which produces amazing results every year. Can't you utilize that, and take it upon yourselves to make the school look good? In your rooms at home, don't you hang posters on the wall?" They said that they weren't allowed to do all kinds of things. So I said, "Do those things. I want to see someone stop you. Leave that part to me." After that, I said a few more tough things and left. A few days later, the head of the student council came to me and said, "Miki, we've decided to decorate the school walls, and offer prizes for the best decorations and cleanest classrooms." The point is that it's possible to activate the youth, and get them to do amazing things. But it has to be demanded of them. They have to be guided, encouraged and directed to bring out the best in them. Unfortunately, this is something that should come from the school, not from some city council member. And the fact is that many schools do activate the kids in this way. I lecture all over the country, so I have the chance to see it. When you lecture youth and talk about Udi, what is the most common question you are asked? Whether I would let my other sons do reserve duty, or whether I would allow another child to be drafted. What is your answer? Yes to both. We are a people's army, and serving in it is our duty to the country - the only country we have. Indeed, I speak to them a lot about the love of and responsibility toward the homeland - as well as about expecting the homeland to know how to safeguard us. I also say to them, "You are kids whose army service awaits you. You must know that when you go to the army, you have to protect yourselves - not rely on the 'trust me, everything will be OK' attitude." If you see that you are supposed to receive something from the army and you don't receive it, complain. And if you don't receive a response from your direct commander, go above his head. Don't give up on anything that concerns your personal safety. This is your life, and it's your right to demand that it be protected. [Here Shlomo adds that another thing kids attending her lectures ask is how she withstood the trauma. Miki continues:] This is a child's question, because any mother understands how she would fight for her child, no matter what. But I will say that this goes back to the people of this country and this nation, here and abroad, whose support was a true source of strength throughout this trying time. As Shlomo has said many times, if it was our fate to be in this situation, it's lucky we are members of the Jewish world. This kind of connection - of having an entire nation standing behind you - is unique to the Jewish people. Finally, what is your position on parents freezing the sperm of their sons before they go off to war? Is it something you would have considered? First of all, Udi had a wife, and that would be her decision to make, and hers alone. I would have accepted any decision Karnit made. But if he weren't married, I don't think I would do it. I don't think a baby should be born without a father. I'm really not in favor of single parenthood. Nor do I think that a child should be born with such a heavy burden on his shoulders - as though he were created in order to keep his father's memory or legacy alive. I wouldn't impose that on a child.