After landing at Ben Gurion Airport a few days ago and walking toward the customs area with other travelers, I wondered if there were any foreign visitors in the crowd. Specifically, I was curious if there was anyone who wouldn’t know much about Israel—someone who came perhaps on business.
If yes, I thought, they must think Israel is one odd country.
Instead of being greeted by posters featuring cars or hotels or happy beer drinkers, these foreign visitors were greeted by posters of hostages currently languishing in the cruel hands of Hamas.
What kind of country welcomes visitors with symbols of such hellish suffering?
I haven’t been able to shake these images. It’s not the photos themselves; I’ve seen them countless times in news reports, marches and on city streets.
It’s their location—at an international airport.
Evidently, some official or committee somewhere must have concluded that it’s a good idea if the first thing people see when they get to Israel are images of hostages.
How is that a good idea?
For starters, it violates a fundamental principle of survival in the world’s toughest neighborhood: never show weakness. There may be no greater show of weakness than a public reminder at an airport that Israel’s vaunted security forces failed these hostages– let alone the 1200 Israelis who perished in the October 7 massacre.
And yet, that show of vulnerability is glaringly visible now for anyone who visits Israel.
What should we make of that?
Foreign visitors may have trouble getting it, but my guess is that people who know Israel will instinctively get it.
From its inception, Israel has lived in tension between the impulse to protect its body and the impulse to express its soul.
The body is the army. The soul is the people.
The body is the cold-blooded calculation of what it will take to eradicate Hamas.
The soul is the need to show everyone who visits the country that these hostages are considered family members to every Israeli.
The body sees the fight for victory as life and death.
The soul accepts the interruption of that fight if it means freeing some hostages.
Some Israelis put one slightly above the other— victory first, hostages second. For others it’s the reverse.
But all Israelis embrace both: The country cannot breathe without its body and its soul.
Israel’s body needs to survive. Israel’s soul wants to thrive.
Those images at Ben Gurion carry both body and soul. Until all the hostages are accounted for they aren’t going anywhere.
True, the images reveal a certain weakness.
But they also advertise a radical love of life, a naked expression of Israeli solidarity.
Maybe in that vulnerable display welcoming the world lies Israel’s secret strength.