My Word: Homecomings and longings

I’d rather belong to a nation willing to pay to bring home a collective child than to a would-be country that turns its mass murderers into heroes.

Gilad Schalit arrives at his home in Mitzpe Hila 311 (photo credit: IDF Spokesman)
Gilad Schalit arrives at his home in Mitzpe Hila 311
(photo credit: IDF Spokesman)
When I heard the news that Gilad Schalit would be coming home after more than five years in captivity, I recalled other soldiers and sons.
In 1984, I attended the welcomehome party of Yohanan Alon, a prisoner of war returning after two years in a Syrian jail. His brother owned a store next to my parents’ printing press and we had all been involved in what would today be called a campaign for his release. In those days, “campaigns” were military and PR companies had no say in the process.
The atmosphere in the family’s crowded living room in Acre was similar to a brit mila celebration.
When Noam Schalit spoke of his son’s homecoming as a “rebirth” I understood what he meant. Gilad Schalit has been described as thin and pale. Alon, who had been deprived of sunlight his entire time in captivity, was not so much pale as translucent.
When it was announced that Schalit would be classified as a disabled veteran from the moment of his return, entitling him to certain health and financial benefits, I lauded the decision. As I recall, Alon’s family faced an extraordinary battle over who should pay to replace his missing front teeth, which was considered “cosmetic surgery.”
Our families lost touch when my parents moved to Jerusalem.
There, as chance would have it, my parents became friendly with another family whose son was an MIA. The friendship has lasted for decades. The son, Zachary Baumel, is still missing.
Baumel disappeared along with two other IDF soldiers – Yehuda Katz and Tzvi Feldman – in the Battle of Sultan Yakoub in June 1982.
When Gilad was abducted in June 2006, Yona Baumel was asked if he had spoken to the Schalits. He replied that he didn’t think they would find it particularly comforting to talk to someone who has lived with the agony of not knowing his son’s fate for more than 20 years.
Yona died two years ago. I didn’t call his widow, Miriam, this month. I didn’t know what to say. But I can make a plea on her behalf: Don’t forget her son or his comrades. Let their families at least be granted closure.
When my 10-year-old son suggested taking down the yellow ribbons from Schalit’s campaign that fly outside his window, I said a possibly too sharp “No.” There are still other missing soldiers.
My son understood. His whole life has been punctuated by experiences like this. The extraordinary ups and downs of Israeli life.
A year ago, we attended the military funeral of a member of my extended family – the cousin of my uncle, Herbert Haberberg. Dov (Doveleh) Haberberg had been dead for many years by the time of his funeral. He was killed, aged 16, at the Battle of the Castel during the War of Independence in 1948. His remains, along with those of two comrades, were identified just before Yom Kippur last year and the funeral was held with full honors just before Hanukka.
At the ceremony, the brother of Eliahu Mouansa, buried next to Doveleh, recalled how his father had always believed Eliahu would one day return, and how he scoured the images of soldiers released from captivity following the 1967 Six Day War, hoping against hope that his son would be among them.
I was touched then by the thought that the army had not given up on the three – even though more than 60 years had passed since they fell.
I am proud to be part of a country which struggles to maintain the principle of never abandoning a soldier – a country which didn’t give up on finding Doveleh more than six decades after he lied about his age to enlist in the Palmah; a country that has just paid a very heavy price for the return of one of its sons.
How high a price? We don’t even know yet. I have seen firsthand the joy of a family welcoming back a son in a prisoner exchange; witnessed the pain of parents who do not know what happened to their son; and shared the relief of families who were finally granted an answer and a grave to visit.
I have also, far too often, seen families whose lives have been blown to pieces.
Ahead of Schalit’s release, Sherri Mandell wrote an impassioned plea against the prisoner exchange. “Yes, I wanted Gilad Schalit released. But not at any price. Not at the price we have experienced,” she wrote.
Koby Mandell and his friend Yosef Ish Ran were stoned to death by terrorists 10 years ago, when they were 13 and 14 years old.
I remember the exact moment I heard that Koby had been killed. I was standing in my kitchen when our then-police reporter Margot Dudkevitch told me over the phone that Sherri’s son had been murdered.
My hand went down to my pregnant stomach and seemed to stay there for four intifada-filled months until I gave birth and immediately felt the vulnerability of motherhood, the fear that you can never fully protect a child.
Sherri was at the time a contributor to the Jerusalem Post magazine. I wish readers could still think of her as the witty writer rather than as the bereaved parent who channeled her pain into creating a foundation to help other families affected by terror.
Also interviewed ahead of the deal was Robi Damelin, whose son, David, was killed by sniper fire while he served in the military reserves in 2002. She was in favor of the deal, despite the release of her own son’s murderer.
Damelin is the spokeswoman of the Parents Circle, a support group for bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families. I know her from joint voluntary work we did on animal welfare issues. I remember, too, when her son was killed and I tried to hide my tears from my then-toddler – the child who a week ago was excited during a hike in the North to see the helicopters bringing Schalit home.
As a mother, I try to provide a feeling of security but I don’t always have answers.
There is a sense of security that comes from solidarity.
Seeing Schalit step back into Israel, leaving the grasp of his Hamas kidnappers for the supporting arms of his family and countrymen, it was hard to talk about the price. Watching him handle the Egyptian television interview with the adroitness of a seasoned diplomat rather than a soldier who has spent the last five years in captivity, who could say he should have been left to waste away in Gaza until all trace of him was lost? Nobody wanted his fate to mirror that of IAF navigator Ron Arad, whose disappearance in Lebanon in 1986 remains a national trauma. Or to be like the fates of the Sultan Yakoub Three, which should haunt us more. I was not surprised to discover that Tami Shenkman, a key person in the Schalit family’s PR campaign, had been the girlfriend of Tzvi Feldman when he went missing.
The sense of collectiveness is our strength and our weakness.
I’d rather belong to a nation willing to pay a high price to bring home a collective child than to a would-be country that turns its mass murderers and child-killers into heroes.
I pray for peace. And I pray that one day we can take down the yellow ribbons outside my son’s window.
Meantime, the blue-and-white flag continues to fly alongside them with pride.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.