Rolling Thunder
Bikers ride for Gilad Shalit at Rolling Thunder in Washington DC. Photo by Natasha Mozgovaya
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There are some things us Israelis do instinctively. Hugging a perfect stranger we meet abroad who happens to speak Hebrew, and calling him “ach sheli” even before you discover you have half a dozen friends in common. Feeling immense pride when you see a Washington, DC crowd cheering on a dozen heavy bikes riding at the annual “Rolling Thunder” event, adorned with Israeli and American flags, and big pictures of the captive soldier Gilad Shalit with the slogan “Free Gilad!”

Usually preoccupied with our own country’s problems, we might forget for a second that this impressive event (with about 400 thousand bikers gathering in Washington from all over the U.S.) was established to raise awareness about American prisoners of war (POWs) and missing in action (MIAs). Although American cars abound with bumper stickers supporting "our boys", many U.S. citizens don’t have any friends or family in the military. In Israel, this could not be further than the truth, with compulsory conscription making "our boys" all too true for every family.

This may explain why as far as I could see, no bikers carried pictures of the U.S. army soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held since June 2009 by the Taliban supporting Haqqani network, but rather more generic black flags with the silhouette of the soldier, his head down to honor POW’s. Yet the crowd cheered on as the group waving flags with Shalit's image rode by.

Last year, there was only one rider for Gilad Shalit, who drove with several thousand other bikers from the vast Pentagon parking lot, around the National mall and to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This year, the same rider, ex-pat Israeli Oren Poleg, asked for the help of the Israeli Embassy and the Jewish Community Relations Council to help pay tribute to the captive Israeli soldier. Word spread, and on Sunday, about 20 bikers put on “Gilad Shalit is alive” T-shirts, decorated their bikes with flags and stickers, and gathered at the Pentagon parking lot.

Not all the bikers knew who Gilad Shalit is, asking the pro-Israel bikers about the boy on the flags. The group-members were more than happy to explain.

Abby Propis Simms and her husband Gary from Chevy Chaise, Maryland, have been involved in public advocacy for Jewish causes for years, and have ridden for the past six years in an annual ride with the Jewish Motorcycle Alliance to raise awareness for Holocaust education. They have also participated in demonstrations to protest the treatment of the Soviet Jews, and for them, riding for Shalit was almost a given.

“In our synagogue (the conservative synagogue “Or Kodesh”, NM), our congregation prays each Shabbat for American soldiers – and we pray also for Gilad Shalit”, Abby told “Haaretz”. She added that “in the Jewish community, he is on the front of our minds. Gilad is still alive, and we are hopeful, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. We had some people coming to us, asking how come it wasn’t solved yet. So it can’t hurt – and maybe it can help."

Abby stressed that “Rolling Thunder” was started to raise awareness about POWs, using flags with numbers to let the public know how many people were missing in action or held captive in each war. "The principle is the same," she said.

When Oren Poleg asked Rolling Thunder executive director Artie Muller, if it was okay to join the ride with Shalit’s pictures, he responded that “a veteran is a veteran”. Poleg said that when he started the initiative, people didn’t entirely understand why he was trying to do, and some of the participants joined him as late as the night before the ride.

“In the U.S., people are aware of some basic things about the conflict, and they do not necessarily remember that Hamas is a terrorist organization - it was forgotten in some dark corner," Poleg said. The Israeli-turned-American said that the group wanted to "add the face to the story, the face of the young guy, and to put it back on the table," adding that he was “surprised that people were so responsive. I just hope we won’t have to do it the next year”.

David Dragon, a rider from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with a biker vest, mustache and tattoos, is one of those who came to ask about the group and Gilad Shalit. After receiving an explanation about the captive soldier, he said: “I’ve never heard about this guy (Shalit) before. But it’s awesome what these guys are doing. I am just sorry in our country many people became so complacent. I guess it’s up to us to keep people aware”.

Dragon, who did not serve in the military, but has taken part in Rolling Thunder for about a decade out of the solidarity with U.S. soldiers, hinted that he and his fellow bikers aren't too pleased with U.S. President Barack Obama's policies. Even Osama Bin Laden’s death, in his opinion, wasn’t something worth commending the president for – “it was the military”, he stressed adding “if I were from Israel – I’d be worried about what I heard from him about your country’s borders”.

The Gilad Shalit group wasn’t the only excitement that morning at the Pentagon parking lot. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin decided to join the riders – with a black helmet and three of her family members. She arrived at the ride for the first stop of her “One nation” tour, its goal still unclear. Her supporters are hoping it’s the first steps that will precede her announcing a bid for presidency in 2012, and her critics are sure it’s just another public relations stint.

Either way, Palin's enthusiastic welcome proved that as a candidate, commentator or celebrity, Sarah Palin has no intention of being left out of the 2012 game.

Israelis will in all likelihood catch up with the American presidential race with their typical delay (because who has a year and a half to follow each candidates’ appearance?). Regardless, what can be said for certain is that despite economic issues, that are expected to remain high on the campaigns’ agenda, Israel might gain even higher visibility as September approaches.

It is also clear that the president's advisors will have to explain his “1967 borders-with-agreed-swaps” speech over and over. He has already done this himself, but it probably won’t do much to discourage his conservative rivals.

This might be frustrating for the president's supporters and those who would prefer a real policy debate instead of focusing on whether President Obama is a lover of Israel, but nu, it’s slightly less dumb than trying to prove over and over that he wasn’t born in Kenya.