Gilad Shalit's New Prison: The Spotlight

The Israeli public, eager to celebrate the unlikely celebrity's release from the Gaza Strip, has found itself engaged in a most delicate kind of dance.

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Can there be any more reluctant celebrity than someone like Gilad Shalit?

Of course, it’s not just Shalit. The public status of a kidnapping victim or a prisoner of war and their family couldn’t be more complicated.

When they are in captivity, life and death rides on how prominent and well-known their cause is, which affects how much public and political pressure is brought to bear for their release. In Israel, such awareness is constant. We learn every possible thing there is to know about our captured soldiers; they become every mother’s son, every child’s big brother.

And then, if they are lucky, they come home. And that’s when the relationship gets truly difficult. Such a drama-loaded situation was the inspiration for an Israeli television series- “Prisoners of War,” on which “Homeland” was based. The local version, unlike “Homeland,” did not concern itself exclusively with issues of loyalty, but rather focused a great deal on the adjustment process of the released prisoners and those close to them.

Shalit’s release in late 2011 was celebrated with great jubilation. At first, everyone just wanted to know that he was okay, physically and mentally, and there was a clear conflict between the public’s hunger for information about how his re-entry was progressing and his need for privacy to make that adjustment. There was a lot of public preaching about giving him space, letting this apparently shy, socially awkward pre-ordeal-kid try to integrate back into the world. But once he did, what would his role be? He would, of course, remain a public figure for the rest of his life.

But what kind of public figure?

In the first year after Shalit's release, some of his choices took the public by surprise. A dedicated sports fan, (who once said that thinking about sports helped him survive his captivity) Shalit was signed by the newspaper Yediot Aharonot to co-write a sports column and was invited to ‘cover’ exciting tournaments. Some wondered about how appropriate this was. And in a ‘life imitating art’ moment, he visited the set of “Homeland”- which was shooting in Israel at the time.

These moves sent a message that he was interested- to some degree- in taking advantage of the public opportunities that his special status afforded him, and thus made the media feel freer to cover his activities. Officially, this means carefully chosen public appearances- he’s travelled abroad and publicly thanked those who worked for his release, he’s appeared at IDF ceremonies honoring immigrant soldiers and war heroes. And he’s even dipped his toe into politics, calling for the release of Jonathan Pollard.

But unofficially- given that he’s not a historical event or a national symbol, but a young man - his personal life also makes the news. The Israeli public interest and the media’s fascination with him means that who he is dating becomes instant fodder for the gossip columns.

His latest girlfriend, a young student named Adi Sigler, who he has been seeing since September 2013- or at least that’s when they made their public debut as a couple- looks like the perfect girl for the shy national hero, and the public seems to approve. (An earlier, flashier, rumored girlfriend’s motives were questioned when people wondered whether she might be jumping on the Shalit bandwagon for publicity.)

But the Sigler-Shalit relationship hit choppy public relations waters in a controversy on what should have been the most romantic time of the year- Valentine's Day. That’s when a photo of Shalit and his girlfriend appeared on the back page of Yediot Aharonot standing and smiling on a hotel balcony with the Mediterranean in the background, their arms around each other. The short article that appeared detailed their romantic weekend at the beach hotel, what they ate, where they strolled- and the name of the hotel featured prominently in the story.

It looked clearly like a deal had been cut- publicity in exchange for a free weekend. In the world of celebrity, PR, this kind of exchange is nothing unusual. But eyebrows were raised at the thought that someone like Shalit would make this kind of bargain. He is, after all, expected to play by different rules than sitcom stars and reality-show personalities. Social media buzzed with comments on the appearance of flackery and favor-exchanging.

Ultimately, Sigler came to her boyfriend’s defense and accused the hotel’s management of “pulling a cheap PR stunt on us.” She said the couple had paid full price for their romantic weekend- the hotel confirmed it. The photo, she said, was taken as a favor at the hotel’s request- she said a relative of hers worked there and they were told the photo would go on the hotel’s website, not in a national newspaper. Presumably the details of their stay were leaked by the hotel staff.

All in all, not a major scandal, but it points to the delicate relationship the Israeli public has with Shalit. While he is certainly free, he will never be free of the spotlight.

Gilad Shalit with Shimon Mizrachi, chairman of the Maccabi Tel Aviv Basketball Club.Credit: Seffi Magriso

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