A flotilla for Gilad Shalit

Some Jews just don’t follow rules. Rosh Hashanah is a time for self-reflection and deep humility —a time when we are supposed to look at what we did wrong, not what others did wrong — but on the first Day of Judgment, my lunchtime crowd followed another script.

I was sitting with a group of friends at the home of Ariel and Sarah Wiendling, fellow members of Young Israel of Century City, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, a day so steeped in Divine judgment that tradition says we shouldn’t sleep on that day, lest we get “caught napping.”

Personally, I was on my “aim higher” kick, trying not to let the hoopla of the holidays interfere with the spiritual imperative of looking inward. On top of that, the previous day I had read an article by a rabbi about how this is a good time of the year for Jews to apologize to the world for our collective sins of the past year.

So when my friend Ariel asked me about my trip to Israel, my response gravitated to anything having to do with looking inward and self-criticism. In particular, I spoke about my visit with the father of Gilad Shalit, who has been sitting vigil in a protest tent across from the prime minister’s home in Jerusalem.

What a dramatic example of self-criticism, I said. A terrorist enemy kidnaps an Israeli soldier, refuses to release him in exchange for over 1,000 prisoners, and Jews protest against their own prime minister.

After someone lamented the inability of the IDF to rescue Shalit (à la Entebbe), the conversation took a theological turn — someone making the point that “if God is behind everything,” then maybe there’s a redeeming feature to this tragedy that we are not seeing. Someone else took umbrage at this idea: How dare we look for redeeming features to such a deep personal tragedy? While we have the luxury of debating Gilad Shalit’s situation over a delicious meal, where is he right now? What meal is he having?

Obviously, I hadn’t picked the best example to honor the Jewish instinct for self-criticism. Of all the things Jews have to apologize for to the world, Gilad Shalit is surely not one of them.

But that’s when the conversation got interesting: If it’s wrong to beat ourselves up over Gilad Shalit, and if it’s not enough to say that “God is behind this,” then what?

Then let’s have a marketing meeting.

By the time dessert was served, we had reached a consensus: Jewish groups should organize an international flotilla for Gilad Shalit that should land in Gaza and ask for a Red Cross visit for the Jewish prisoner. The flotilla should consist of one main ship — with the flags of Israel and the Red Cross — and small boats to represent each day that Shalit has been imprisoned.

Everyone at the table loved the idea so much that they said, “I’m in.”

In fact, this is what I’m hearing every time I bring it up: people saying, “I’m in.” And many are adding to the idea: Have Shalit’s father lead the flotilla; do it around Passover and bring him a care package that will include matzahs; seek the support of Jewish organizations from across the spectrum, from J Street to ZOA, each representing a different boat; enlist human rights organizations who are usually Israel’s worst critics; go right to the top, getting the endorsements of President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, and so on.

Someone made the comment that a group tried to do something similar earlier this year, but that it wasn’t a hit because the “flotilla” was just in the New York harbor. Someone else said that because of Israel’s official naval blockade to Gaza, organizers will need to get Israel to make an exception for Shalit’s flotilla, which would be worth it if only for the PR value.

I’m sure anyone who tries to pull this off will encounter a million obstacles, but I’d love to see someone give it a shot — and at least make a lot of noise trying.

The request is so modest and reasonable — a Red Cross visit with a prisoner — that it makes it difficult for anyone to be against it, and it gives supporters of Israel from the left to the right a concrete cause they can all get behind. And by making such a modest request, and staying away from the messy politics of prisoner exchanges, we can turn Gilad Shalit into a household name on the lips of the world’s most influential leaders. 

It’s true that this doesn’t fit the Rosh Hashanah themes of humility and personal self-reflection, and it certainly doesn’t follow the rabbi’s message of making a collective Jewish apology to the world.

What it might represent, however, is a collective Jewish apology to Gilad Shalit for not having done more to free him, and maybe a way of including him in our process of becoming better Jews for the coming year.

David Suissa is the founder of OLAM magazine and OLAM.org. You can read his daily blog at suissablog.com and e-mail him at {encode=”suissa@olam.org” title=”suissa@olam.org”}.