Imagine if We Hadn’t Forgotten About Avera Mengistu

The story of the Israeli captive in Gaza who was not forgotten within a week. His name would have been Ronnie Berkowitz, had he been real.

His story began with a news report. “A gag order has been lifted,” the anchorman said, “and now we can report that an Israeli citizen has gone missing in Gaza and is assumed to have been captured by Hamas.”

The army, he added, wanted to keep the gag order in effect, but the courts and media felt the public had to be told.

That’s when the pandemonium began. It was as if the entire country was up in arms within an instant. First, there were many questions: Who is this citizen? How did he manage to enter Gaza? Can anyone really just walk into Gaza? Isn’t Gaza supposed to be sealed off? How long has the government known about this? Why wasn’t the public told earlier?

Most importantly, people wanted to know if a plan existed to rescue the missing person. A military operation in waiting? What’s going to happen now?

Commentators and pundits unanimously said the same thing – that the state must do everything in its power to save this man. Regardless of what he did, regardless of his mysterious reasons for entering Gaza, they said, he’s an Israeli citizen, and Israel leaves no man behind. It even agreed to release hundreds of prisoners in 2004 in exchange for Elhanan Tannenbaum, a failed drug dealer who foolishly got himself captured by Hezbollah.

Later, the citizen’s identity was made public. A troubled young man, suffering from mental illness, by the name of Ronnie Berkowitz. Over the next few days, countless neighbors, friends and relatives spoke to the press, describing him as a sweet, innocent boy and told heartbreaking stories of an unfulfilled, tragedy-plagued life.

Instead of dying down, the public scrutiny only intensified as more time passed.

The boy was seen as a innocent victim, a sensitive soul who accidentally wandered into a dense web of messed-up circumstances. The media made him a symbol, and gave him the monicker “Boy Innocent.” A meme went viral online: a photo of Ronnie, with the caption “bring back our son.”

Commentators, social workers, and mental health professionals spoke about the importance of compassion; about Israel’s obligation to protect all citizens, even its weakest ones, even those of unsound mind.

More advanced speakers mentioned the state’s responsibility for his predicament: the collapse of Israel’s mental health infrastructure, the broken societal system that denied this man treatment, the soldiers guarding the border who seemingly let him wander off into Gaza without stopping him, as if Gaza is a place you can just stroll in and out of.

This, people said, is the true test of a nation’s character. It can be our hour of triumph, or shame.

There were those who cautioned against rash decisions, who said Israel doesn’t need another Gilad Shalit deal, that the price and benefit have to be weighed in accordance with Israel’s long-term strategy. But they were in the minority, repeatedly criticized as heartless and cruel.

Weeks later, to the amazement of some, people still cared.

By that point, public pressure on the government reached new highs. Israelis were outraged: What’s taking the prime minister so long to respond? And why has the prime minister still not met or spoken to the family? Isn’t it his job to face them in their hour of need?

And then the recording was made public: a senior aide to the prime minister caught threatening the missing person’s family on tape, telling them to shut their mouths and not dare criticize the government’s actions if they want to see their son anytime soon.

The scandal that erupted following the tape’s release was astounding. A government official trying to censor a family in crisis, humiliating them in the process? The official was fired within a day.

For a moment, it seemed the scandal grew so big that the government might fall.

In order to mitigate damage, the prime minister and his wife invited the Berkowitz family for dinner at the prime minister’s residence, and offered their deepest apologies. At the end of the dinner, Netanyahu and the boy’s father, Mr. Giora Berkowitz, went hand in hand outside to talk to the press. Hamas should know that we’ll do whatever it takes to get Ronnie back, he said.

Protest rallies were soon held in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, and in front of the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem. Thousands attended, holding up signs with slogans such as “Bring back our son,” “heartless government” and a slogan borrowed from another protest movement meant to bring back an Israeli captured by Hamas in Gaza, “Ronnie is still alive.”

With every week that Ronnie was still held captive, the rallies grew bigger. Prominent artists voiced their support and performed new protest songs they wrote specifically about Boy Innocent. Others covered Israeli classics with topical renditions.

Eventually, the Jewish Diaspora was enlisted. American-Jewish foundations donated funds to the campaign for his release. Green ribbons – green because, apparently, green was Ronnie’s favorite color – started appearing in synagogues. Several demonstrators stood outside Israeli embassies in Paris, London and Stockholm, urging Israel to release the man, already known worldwide as “Boy Innocent.”

Eventually, after tense negotiations and the implied threat of military response, the boy was released. The price, as is always when it comes to prisoner swaps, was heavy, but received widespread public support.

Israel, once again, proved that its ethos of doing whatever it takes to protect Israeli citizens, wherever they are, is alive and kicking. The total mobilization of Israel’s population, people mused, the way an entire nation rallied around the demand to rescue a boy who was seen as an innocent victim of circumstance, would be remembered as one of Israel’s finest hours.

Sadly, of course, none of this happened. Ronnie Berkowitz doesn’t exist. Avera Mengistu, a 28-year-old troubled young man of Ethiopian descent who wandered off into Gaza 10 months ago, does. And his father isn’t named Giora, but Haile.

Mengistu’s disappearance and capture were not made public within a week, but managed to stay hidden for almost a year, under a cloud of government secrecy. The government negotiator who was caught threatening Mengistu’s family was heavily criticized, but kept his job. News of Mengistu’s predicament caused outrage at first, but then quickly became yesterday’s news.

Negotiations with Hamas might, eventually, lead to Mengistu’s release, if he is indeed still alive. While it is still early to say, the rather muted response to Mengistu’s situation suggests there will be no public outcry, no national mobilization demanding his release.

Years ago, Gilad Shalit became “everybody’s son,” a national symbol of Israel’s duty to care for the young soldiers it sends into harm’s way. Mengistu, most likely, will not become a symbol of anything other than the neglect with which Israel treated Ethiopian Jews, an agonizing proof of their disadvantage.

Would his fate be different if he was not named Avera Mengistu, but Ronnie Berkowitz? It’s a distinct possibility. Unfortunately for Mengistu, that’s not the case.