This is the fifth Passover Gilad is not home. On Seder night, Gilad will mark 1,760 long, endless days in captivity, deserted and alone in a Hamas dungeon, for nearly half a decade.
This time of year is filled with the spicy scent of spring. Nature rejuvenates with bold colors and the days are long and full of light again, but I cannot feel any new hope. This nightmare that has become our life does not seem to end.
I imagine Gilad emerging from the darkness that envelopes him straight into this festive spring out here. Inhaling a lungful of florescence smells, warming up in the bright light we have in abundance – which he was deprived of for so long.
There is so much light in this conflicted, rough, violent region we live in. That is how I want to keep seeing my Gilad – in the light, laughing. But it is still winter inside of me. It is cold, and that is how it will remain until my son returns to me.
Flesh and blood
It still surprises me, how everyone knows Gilad. Secretly, I'm happy we chose to name him Gilad. Such an Israeli name. Biblical. My shy boy's face is now known in every home. His bashful smile stares back at me from posters, stickers, T-shirts and newspaper articles. But Gilad is not a poster or a cardboard cutout. He is a person. Alive. Flesh and blood.
People visit the protest tent. I can see their good intentions in their eyes. My Gilad is their Gilad, too. They touch him through me. Pray that he comes home safely. Ask, again and again – how is this possible? How can it be that the State of Israel – once again – fails to retrieve a soldier it sent on a mission.
But maybe I'm being selfish. I just want those anonymous days back, when I was just Aviva Shalit and my son was just my son, with his path winding ahead of him, free for him to do with as he pleases.
Some say women and mothers "speak from the womb" instead of with our heads. Let me remind you, that that womb nurtures our children for only nine months. After that, it is mostly our heads that teach the values we believe in to our children. That is how Noam and I raised Gilad, Yoel and Hadas. That head supported Gilad's decision to become a combatant soldier. That head believed that we are a country – a society – of values, one where public responsibility and mutual guarantee are core values.
It is my head, not my womb, that finds the State's shrugging off its responsibility for soldiers it sent into battle, unacceptable.
Have we forgotten these values? Have our leaders forgotten them? Is the mighty State of Israel, with its various security forces, unable to deal with the threat of terror? Unfortunately, the prime minister prefers to intimidate the Israeli public with predictions of terror attacks, while ignoring the fact that abandoning Gilad poses an existential risk to youths, the IDF and society in Israel.
We sit in the protest tent across from the prime minister's home, having left our home and our jobs nine months ago, demanding the Israeli government and the prime minister – who sent Gilad on his mission five years ago – do what needs to be done to bring Gilad home.
The price has remained unchanged these five years, and the State of Israel failed to manufacture any other alternative – if attempts to come up with such alternatives were even made – including applying various pressures to Gilad's captors.
We sit in the tent, and life outside of it is bustling. Five years ago, I was also running around like that before Passover. Rushing to finish my shopping, to cook for my family and guests. Like all other mothers, I made sure we had favorite dishes, new clothes. Will Gilad come home for the holiday? No, he probably will not come this year either.
We will not celebrate without him. We will not celebrate the holiday of Exodus, of freedom, until Gilad regains the freedom taken from him half a decade ago. The word "Home" is so unique. It offers direction and expresses a longing. It embodies everything that is important in one word. "Gilad, come home," I whisper to him at night. Does he whisper "home" silently too?
Sometimes, when the days grow long, and the tent becomes unexpectedly quite, I find myself looking at its entrance, waiting for that moment. All of a sudden, emerging from the lazy afternoon light, happy voices and people would fill up the tent. "It's over Aviva," they would say to me. "Gilad is coming home." And I will smile with everything in me, and feel my arms open and my chest fill with air again, as if I had not taken one breath until this moment.
That vision is so real sometimes, so vivid, that I find myself happy there, by the tent's entrance. But it remains empty.
I ask only one thing of you, the masses that come to me as say, "He's like my son," "He's my brother." Israeli's from all over: this Passover, when you sit to a festive Seder table, dressed in your best clothes, surrounded by those you love, enjoying good food and reading the Haggadah, recounting the liberation from slavery to freedom, the crossing of the Red Sea and emerging from darkness to light, stop for a moment. Just one moment. Remember Gilad. A son of Israel, left behind, abandoned in solitude, rotting in a cell for five years now, living a bitter life.
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