The why-(not)-me syndrome

Love and guilt combine in our national strength and weakness.

goldwasser funeral 224ap (photo credit: AP)
goldwasser funeral 224ap
(photo credit: AP)
'Why me?" It's far more than a question. It's a fundamental plea to understand the often inexplicable. It is perhaps the most natural reaction to the sort of blow that leaves you struggling to figure out what Divine or cosmic force singled you out. Lately, I have come to the conclusion that the country suffers from a different form of the phenomenon. Call it "The why-not-me syndrome." It's the syndrome of survivors: the survivors of the Holocaust, war and terror. Before the exchange in which Israel received the bodies of kidnapped soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, I watched a TV interview with a reservist who had at the last minute switched with one of the two men who - we now know - were to come home only two years and four days later, in coffins. The reserve soldier confessed his (natural) feelings of guilt. I remember my brother suffering something similar when the medic who replaced him towards the end of his service in the First Lebanon War was fatally wounded during a mission in which three other members of his unit were killed outright. Above all, I recall a soldier from my Nahal unit visiting friends on a kibbutz during Lebanon I (in its Operation Peace for Galilee days, before Hizbullah had even been founded). "Mickey! I heard you were saved by a miracle," someone greeted the soldier just back from the front. The normally mild-mannered Mickey exploded: "What kind of miracle was it? The guy sitting next to me was killed! That's not a miracle!" It was a response typical of someone struggling with the guilt stage of a bereavement. I didn't yet know the term post-traumatic stress syndrome. SUCH MEMORIES, perhaps better suppressed, returned last week with "The prisoner exchange." The term itself is traumatic given that our soldiers were abducted and Hizbullah certainly didn't abide by any of the international laws concerning POWs, while its "soldiers" were child-killing terrorists. They don't come much more despicable than Samir Kuntar and the "Bride of Death" Dalal Mughrabi, responsible for the deaths of 36 people in the Coastal Road Massacre 30 years ago. I recalled the friends who didn't return. That terrible guilt while listening to a list of names of victims and silently praying: "Please, just let it not be..." There was also a different recollection. The brother of the shopkeeper next to my parents' printing press in Karmiel was captured by the Syrians in 1982. Yohanan Alon came home to his family in Acre to much fanfare and backslapping by politicians on June 28, 1984. I remember his eyes, still glazed; the see-through quality of his skin (he had not seen daylight in those two years); his grin, minus some teeth. The song "Ani hozer habayta," "I'm coming home, me and my guitar" - a wildly popular Israeli version of L'Italiano - seemed to be playing in a nonstop loop. LAST WEEK, when Regev and Goldwasser's bodies were brought home, the mood and music were very different. There was closure but no joy. The radio played the songs which are a unique Israeli genre: the sort of music broadcast on Remembrance Day, Holocaust Day and whenever there's a major terror attack. From the start, I had suspected that the two soldiers were dead. But, I suppose, I, too, hoped that a miracle ("What kind of a miracle?") would occur. I shed a tear at the sight of the coffins. "Today brings the Lebanon War to an end," said a misguided Israel Radio commentator as the bodies crossed into Israel at Rosh Hanikra. The war is not over. It will not be over until Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is the one in a coffin, or at least the one mourning. Even the First Lebanon War is not over. Ask the soldiers who served in it. And ask the families of the Sultan Yakoub Three. Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz went missing in a battle in June 1982. Over the years the families have watched exchange after exchange in which the price has gone up and the bartering chips gone down. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was foolish - to say the least - to declare the aim of the war on Hizbullah was to bring Regev and Goldwasser home, knowing they were almost definitely dead. But to begin to talk of peace with Syria without demanding the return of the Sultan Yakoub MIAs is worthy of another investigation. THERE ARE fears the terrorists' demands for the return of Gilad Schalit, held by Hamas since June 2006, will now increase, along with the incentive to carry out more attacks. Conversely, Hamas might so want to imitate the Hizbullah "victory" that it will at least get serious about considering the terms for Schalit's release. In the meantime, as Yona Baumel has proposed, we also need to change the rules of the game and suspend all Red Cross contact with Palestinian prisoners until contact is established with Schalit. We are all scarred by the "Ron Arad trauma." The IAF navigator has been missing since he was shot down over Lebanon in 1986. Last week, as part of the deal, photos of Arad and personal letters to his wife were handed over to Israel. They were at least 20 years old. Yediot Aharonot, whose headlines often resemble succinct, one-line opinion pieces, ran one of the pictures on the front page with the words: "Look him in the eyes." I looked and recognized the glazed stare, the same as Alon's. The difference was that Alon was sitting in his living room, surrounded by friends, food and festivities. When Olmert looked into Arad's eyes, the moral dilemmas were no doubt heightened. Even King Solomon would have found this a tough call, let alone a politician struggling to fight corruption charges and coalition crises. The decision was a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't. The devil - in the form of Nasrallah, Kuntar et al. - obviously stood to gain more than Israel. BUT DEEP among the misery, there came a reminder of our strengths as well as our weaknesses. For, as much as anything else, this is a psychological war. Israelis are aware of it. Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is a master of it. For all its faults, the swap once again demonstrated the meaning of "Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh," "All Israel is responsible for each other," one of the most basic tenets of Jewish life. That is, perhaps, why we feel so guilty for surviving when others don't. We have just begun marking "the Three Weeks," the period between the Hebrew date of 17 Tammuz, on which the walls of Jerusalem were breached ahead of the destruction of the two Temples on 9 Av. The Second Temple, we are told, was destroyed because of baseless hatred. At this time, then, the deep concern over the fate of our soldiers - the love we can show to "one of our own" - is also our strength. Hizbullah got back its killers. But the moral victory is ours.