Gideon Levy

An Anonymous Backpacker Turned Israeli Hero

Naama Issachar takes a selfie in Israel in this undated picture.
\ HANDOUT/ REUTERS

A new Gilad Shalit has been born: Naama Issachar. An unlucky Israeli backpacker, who was found in possession of a drug that made her the victim of an international plot. She has become our latest national heroine.

A moment ago nobody would have cared what happened to her, although she has been rotting in a Russian jail for a few months; in a moment from now, when the media loses interest and moves on to the next hero, she’ll be forgotten.

Meanwhile she is our girl, she belongs to all of us. “Fingers crossed for Naama,” “the army of Naama’s friends,” “the war room for Naama,” Naama is exhausted, Naama is weeping, Naama is dreaming, Naama hopes, all Naama all the time. The president and the prime minister are vying to see who cares about her most. The rally for her release is already being organized.

Supposedly moving and heartwarming. Solidarity, brotherhood, all for one. It’s hard to think of another country where an anonymous backpacker who was punished more than she deserved turns into such a national hero, without even being a prisoner of war in an enemy country.

Israel loves momentary heroes like this, into which it can pour everything that is horrifically absent here on a day-to-day basis. There’s no real solidarity with the weak, in fact there’s hardly any solidarity at all. Go to the street, to the mall, to a parking garage, drive the roads, stand in line, and see the Israeli lack of consideration for others, any others, the unbelievable aggression, violence, rage and even hatred roiling and bubbling everywhere.

Nobody is anybody’s sucker, so nobody will be considerate of anyone else. We’ll drive wildly, we’ll park however we feel like it, we’ll throw garbage wherever we want, we’ll cut in line, we’ll steal around the traffic jam. Why not? Does somebody owe you anything? For Naama, though, we’re heroes. For her, it’s enough to sigh, hope and pray. And so the heart warms, the Yiddishkeit overflows, national pride soars. We’re incomparable.

But in a society that crushes and abandons the weak, where showing consideration for others is only for suckers, you can’t really be moved by forge solidarity of the kind expressed toward Naama Issachar.

We love her, too, because she brings us that most pleasant of feelings, the most moving of feelings, the feeling of the victim, which we love so much. You don’t have to say it out loud, but it’s there, in the recesses of the public discourse: Issachar was arrested because she is Jewish. She is a victim of anti-Semitism. The Russians are abusing her because the Holocaust wasn’t enough for them. The whole world is against us. And so our heart goes out to her and her bitter fate. This would never happen to the daughter of a different people. Only to us. And we don’t deserve this, we deserve this least of anyone. After all we’ve been through. That’s the subtext of all the talk about Naama.

What’s not in any subtext, any awareness, is all the Naamas we ourselves have created. The ones rotting in jail here, after they were sentenced to punishments wildly disproportionate to their actions, in some cases when no crime was even committed. The disproportionate sentence Issachar received is humane and considerate compared to some of the punishments handed down by the military courts in the West Bank, for example.

In this context, one can’t avoid saying this either: A country that imprisons about 1,000 children a year, some of them younger than 12; that at any given moment holds more than 400 “administrative detainees” (people who are jailed without trial, without indictment, without any chance of defense, without a chance of fairness) and remains silent, showing no solidarity with the victims and almost no protest on their behalf – such a country has no moral right to complain about Russia, to complain about its distorted justice system and lament the injustice to Naama, its darling. Naama Issachar is a political prisoner. Russian jails are filled with them. But open up your eyes: Our jails are filled with them too, thousands of them.