I became actively involved with Israel the week after Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas in 2006. I had been interested in, and quietly supportive of, Israel for a couple of years before that. But it was witnessing the ignorance and hostility that Israel faced in Britain after Gilad’s kidnap, and then again when the Hezbollah war began weeks later, that convinced me to speak-up and get involved.
Since then, Gilad’s plight has been central in my thoughts and activity with regards to Israel. With Gilad hopefully on the brink of freedom I thought I’d collect here some key memories of the campaign to keep his case alive.
* The ‘Tekes’ for Gilad Shalit organised by The Federation of Zionist Youth (FZY) in 2009. It was a moving and galvanising effort.
* The birthday cake for Gilad and vigil at the Red Cross written about here by my friend Jonathan Sacerdoti.
* Gilad’s smile in video released by Hamas (in exchange for 20 Palestinian prisoners) in the autumn of that year.
* In July 2010, every Zionist organisation in Britain ignored the fourth anniversary of Gilad’s captivity – except one. The FZY held a week-long vigil for Gilad opposite Downing Street. During the three days I spent on the vigil I was encouraged by how many passers-by were supportive. I handed out hundreds of leaflets, including one to Deputy PM Nick Clegg.
* Meanwhile, tens of thousands were demonstrating in support of Gilad in Israel, and Jonathan wrote about a concert for Gilad he attended near the Gaza border.
* A few weeks later I was in Jerusalem. A friend took me to the Shalit family protest tent and introduced me to Gilad’s father Noam. I showed Noam photographs of the vigil, and shared stories with him of our experiences on it. We had a chuckle about Nick Clegg. I then spoke with members of a nearby counter-vigil, run by people bereaved by terror attacks who oppose the idea of a prisoner swap. Movingly, the cafe that sits opposite the tent and counter-vigil is Cafe Momento, which has twice been blown-up by suicide bombers.
* On my way home from Israel that summer, I was lightly questioned at Ben Gurion Airport. When the security guy finished his questions he pointed at my Shalit campaign t-shirt and said: ‘By the way, my friend – just awesome.’
* The vigil and leafleting outside the Red Cross in London in February 2011.
* The Faces For Gilad campaign organised by the Board of Deputies’ Jamie Slavin. (Jamie had been key in organising the 2010 FZY vigil.)
* The London taxi for Gilad
* Thousands of Hasidim dancing and praying for Gilad.
* In June 2011 I met and spoke alongside Gilad’s grandfather Zvi and cousin Hemda at an FZY event in London. It was very moving to hear their stories and to chat with them afterwards. It really brought home what the family was going through. Hemda is great fun, and talked to me about the differences between Christianity and Judaism, before telling me: ‘Oy Va Goy – you’re an honorary Jew.’ Just like Gilad’s parents, Hemda and Zvi are lovely, admirable people.
In truth, it was the sober realities of international political relations that led Gilad to the brink of freedom this week, not leafleting on the streets of London. However, the Shalit family told me clearly that news of every effort in the Gilad campaign brought them comfort and encouragement in dark times. For that reason alone it was all worthwhile, so kol hakovod to all who took part.
Furthermore, these initiatives served as a powerful way of introducing the general public to wider truths about Israel and the Middle East. Several members of the public I spoke with while leafleting about Gilad went through palpable paradigm shifts in their perception of Israel as a result of learning about his case. Human stories always connect.
My thoughts are with all of Gilad’s family as they await his return. My thoughts are also with the people of Israel, whatever their views and feelings on the prisoner exchange. It’s an emotional time.
Most of all, of course, my thoughts are with Gilad.
Bring him home.