An Alien in Our Midst

A strange and alien creature came back into our confident Israeli existence with the return of Gilad Shalit after nearly five and a half years in Hamas captivity in Gaza.

It isn't the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the one abducted five and a half years ago, who returned from captivity. The returnee, much to the dismay of the many television viewers, was the pale image of the Eternal Jew from whom we have tried so hard to disassociate ourselves. A smiling Israeli soldier was abducted and a Jewish victim of the pogroms came back. Franz Kafka came back in a uniform way too big for him, apparently having shed all traits of Israeliness and returned to being a Diaspora Jew. A strange and alien creature came back into our confident Israeli existence.

Gilad Shalit was born into a family that looks like the perfect model of the ideal and solid Israel family. The father, Noam, is a paragon of the solid and the Israeli, as is his restrained manner of speaking. But what really tugged at the heartstrings and won the affection of the entire nation for the Shalit family was the model learning process it underwent in full view of everyone in the matter of chutzpah. The nation looked on entranced as a family in Israel gradually discovered the formula for putting together the instrument that, for lack of a better name, we can call a colossal chutzpah bomb. This bomb swelled to such huge dimensions that it stopped looking like just plain ordinary Israeli chutzpah - if we may so denominate the feeling throbbing in every Israeli, that he is the pinnacle of creation, that he merits everything, and and that he deserves whatever he asks for simply by virtue of being what he is: that is, an Israeli.

Without the esteem for the Shalit family's chutzpah, which can of course be described with such other, more elevated terms as "courage," "persistence," "dignity" and "Here in Israel human life is valued," and so on and so forth, it is impossible to explain the sweeping popular attraction to the movement for the release of Gilad Shalit. After all, it's a movement that had no firm ideological basis apart from the one little thing that unites Israelis of all stripes - secular and religious, Jews and Arabs, Sephardis and Ashkenazis: Long live chutzpah! Especially if that chutzpah entails contempt for hierarchy and power, along with scorn for the petty calculations and overly sober considerations concerning the future. Thinking about the future is held to be something reprehensible, a remnant of the Diaspora Jewish mentality. The Israeli mentality is always "everything will be hunky-dory."

And again: It wasn't personal charisma that united the nation behind the blue-and-white banner of "Gilad is still alive." On the contrary, perhaps. His father, Noam, never aroused any special sympathy, and his mother, Aviva, did not provide the overflowing measure of emotion the audience would have liked to get from her. Nor does the Shalit family, with its elitist conduct and its Ashkenazi origin, represent the current sociological cross-section of the Israeli nation. If they have succeeded in getting their son back, it was because they opened their mouths, because at a certain moment they stopped being pushovers. For this they won the big prize.

Therefore, all those hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners who were released this week were not freed in return for the release of Gilad Shalit. They were the Shalit family's victory prize in the national reality game "Chutzpah Idol." Because the chutzpah to demand what I have coming to me, and not to give in, is that small axis around which the entire Israeli planet rotates and without which it would fall apart. Hundreds of prisoners is the list price of this small but costly piece of the machine called Israel.

During all the years Shalit spent in Hamas captivity, he could not have imagined that he was such a valuable replacement part. The empowerment process undergone by his family, together with the popular movement that surrounded it, on the way to the discovery of the formula for producing the arch-Israeli chutzpah bomb, passed right over him. He remained behind, like a chick that fell from the nest before having had time to learn from his parents the cunning of the boast "I've got it coming to me," and all the rest of the behavioral accessories the typical Israeli needs to have.

For this reason, Gilad Shalit's weak physical appearance was so shocking to all who saw him. This young man, who, had he been living his normal life in this country during the past five and a half years, would most certainly have joined the Rothschild Boulevard tent camps, and without a doubt would have also joined a movement for the release of one Israeli captive or another - this young man had lost his chutzpah! The glasses, too big for his thin face, gave him the look of an intellectual pushover who, in 1930s' Europe, would automatically have drawn fascist bullies to beat him up energetically.

The head-on encounter with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's healthy flesh only amplified his strangeness on our planet of unbridled chutzpah. Hearing the talk now about the psychologists who will treat him in order to get him back on track, I don't know whether to be horrified or to laugh.

What is clear, though, is that in the psychologically totalitarian country called Israel, an individual whose glands do not regularly secrete the chutzpah hormone must undergo treatment to bring the flush of arrogance back to his cheeks. And apparently it will be brought back.