Even from the distance of a few weeks, it's hard to say which photo most symbolizes the day of Gilad Shalit's return from captivity: Is it the picture of him in the checked shirt at the Egyptian border, at the start of the day of his release? Or perhaps it's the one in which his father, Noam, is burying his son's head in the crook of his arm? Or the one in which he is seen with his mother, who has done her hair to be ready to greet him? Or perhaps it is this blindingly bright photo in which he accedes to the all-enveloping, awkward, protective and surprising hug from Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz.
The face of the chief of staff, a head taller than Shalit, is not visible; his bulky arm can be seen through his uniform, and his red beret stands out against the backdrop of the blue sky. Shalit's delicate pale hand on Gantz's back appears slightly shrunken, as if embarrassed by the very physicality of the contact, and his large weary eyes gaze ahead at some unknown point. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is smiling in this photograph, as is the head of the IDF Casualties Department, Col. Yair Ben Shalom, standing behind Shalit. Defense Minister Ehud Barak is also smiling behind his sunglasses. Why did he keep them on while everyone else is standing in the light without protection, and why didn't he take them off in front of Shalit himself, who was kept hidden in the dark, and who is now suddenly being exposed to the sun's rays, and who looks like he might crumble to pieces from the strong light? The discomfort that the glare is causing Shalit is so apparent. But behind Shalit's head resting on the chief of staff's chest, Barak remains with his sunglasses. That's who he is.
But the sunlight isn't the only thing that appears to be hurting Shalit's eyes. In all of the photos detailing his return home, he looks to be in pain. Certainly during the interview that was forced on him in Egypt, in which he wearily kept his head up and, with courage and every last ounce of strength, managed to answer questions about his political positions and thoughts about the future, without identifying with his assailants as often happens with captives.
And as the images multiplied over the course of the day, Shalit looked thinner and thinner. He also became more real, and vulnerable, and his stature - which might have been expected to grow with his new freedom - seemed instead to shrink as he was revealed in each subsequent photo, certainly in comparison to the healthy dimensions of the people who greeted him. For instance, he looked genuinely faded next to the broad, sheltering back of Col. Ben Shalom, who took care of him and escorted him from the moment he was transferred across the Egyptian border in the checked shirt that his captors dressed him in.
This shirt, his thinness and the fact that he was rescued from darkness, stirred in the consciousness, at the moment when the first photographs were broadcast and throughout the entire day, the image of a concentration camp survivor, even though there is no real comparison here, of any kind, except the trace of an image, of collective fears, of historical memory. And even the shining image of the man who returned cannot erase the situation here from the consciousness, and the many thousands of prisoners who still remain in Israel, even after hundreds were released.
The photographs capturing the first part of the day, until Shalit emerged in uniform from the Yasur helicopter to meet Netanyahu and Gantz and Barak at Tel Nof airbase, are therefore tremendously symbolic photographs of meetings with men - commanders and fathers - culminating in the encounter with the chief of staff. This is a photograph that immortalizes the way in which Gantz, as the person at the head of the military, fulfills the metaphor of the warm embrace that overtook the Israeli discourse, which often stands in total contrast to the social alienation and painful separation between the various groups in it. This discourse had been greatly strengthened during the summer of massive popular protest, at the peak of which hundreds of thousands took to the country's main squares calling for social justice and a big hug. For human warmth, understanding, support. Gantz thus serves as a substitute father, in that moment, a symbolic father, while Shalit stands in for all sons.
And still, although he is being embraced, Shalit's body is turned aside slightly as his white, expressionless face quietly takes in the moment. Shortly after this photograph was taken, Shalit's father, Noam, came up to greet him, and father and son didn't know just which way to turn their heads, and as often happens, their head movements were not coordinated and they almost collided. And then Noam Shalit gave his son a quick, almost superficial, kiss on the temple, as if saving the real, profound reunion for the moment they would have privacy.
In contrast to all that, Gantz's gesture, even if spontaneous, was essentially a message to other soldiers and to the nation. And so it also involves grasping, and surrender. The chief of staff, who was very moved, said, "Well done, Gilad. Be strong and everything will be fine" - in the usual direct Israeli way - but Noam Shalit sufficed with the quick, confused kiss and said, "Let's go to Mom," because no physical gesture, or words, or fleeting touch, planned or spontaneous, could express the depth, the duration, the import, the complexity and the endless longing and love of parents.
And so this symbolic photograph, below the propeller blades of the Yasur that are slicing the sky, explains why love of country - organized in symbols and patterns and, in the case of Gilad Shalit, was fulfilled in every possible sense and succeeded, this one time, in saving the individual - can never really substitute for real personal love. Nor should it.
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