Gantz, What About Avera Mengistu?

Iris Leal
Iris Leal
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Avera Mengistu's family demonstrating for his release from Gaza outside the Prime Minister's Office, June, 2016.
Avera Mengistu's family demonstrating for his release from Gaza outside the Prime Minister's Office, June, 2016.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Iris Leal
Iris Leal

The story of Naama Issachar writes itself every day. With just a little more effort, I’ll have a pilot for a Netflix series: A pretty young woman is arrested at the Moscow airport on her way home to Israel from India. A search of her knapsack finds nine grams of marijuana. She’s accused of drug smuggling, and a court sentences her to seven and a half years in jail.

To escalate the tension, there’s a surprising plot twist, and the story changes from “Midnight Express” to “North by Northwest”: A Russian hacker whom Vladimir Putin wants to extradite appears in the third episode. Israel refuses to capitulate to Russian pressure to arrange a prisoner swap, and with a heavy heart, decides instead to extradite him to the United States, where he’s wanted for fraud.

Some people identify with Naama’s mother, because they’re parents of a son or daughter of the same age who toured the Far East and returned via a connecting flight. The question, “What if this were my child?” is very powerful. Other people have just returned from a trip to India via the Moscow airport themselves. The question, “What if this were me?” is no less powerful.

If so, does that mean we’re a solidarity society, one that mobilizes with all its might to save our neighbor’s daughter? Or do we simply need a story with good pacing and fascinating plot twists?

It depends on who you ask. Gilad Shalit’s story was static. He was kidnapped and held captive by Hamas for more than five years, and other than the one time when his captors posted a video clip of him reading a message in Hebrew from a piece of paper, there was no story.

Yet the media and his parents, who also fought tirelessly for his release, managed to create a high-quality viewing package. Yael Dan counted the number of days he had spent in captivity on her radio program and played “Everyone’s Son,” the song Aviv Geffen wrote in his honor. And the campaign for his release caught on strongly.

And then there’s Avera Mengistu. He’s been in captivity for five years, and Hamas is pounding its head on the wall in frustration: Israelis are apathetic to his fate.

There’s no public battle for his release, and nobody is demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners with blood on their hands in exchange for this immigrant with psychological problems who crossed the border into the Gaza Strip “of his own free will.” The practical limits of his story (it’s easier to negotiate with Putin than with Hamas) make a difference, in part, and perhaps primarily, because they enable us to forget Mengistu and leave him to rot in jail with a quiet conscience.

Because this thought is horrifying, I’ll play the role of the hard-working producer and ask Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party: What’s wrong with you? Make this into a story, and you’ll earn your few cents for the campaign.

Before the last election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a meeting with the Goldin and Shaul families, whose sons’ bodies have been held by Hamas since 2014, in the hopes of getting some benefit from it. But he had no time for Mengistu’s parents. They might have spoiled the frame, heaven forbid, by adding a bit of black to the lily-white picture of the missing Israelis’ families.

In electoral terms, Mengistu is worth a thousand of Gadi Yevarkan – the Knesset member who defected from Kahol Lavan to Likud – among the Ethiopian-Israeli community. All Kahol Lavan would have to do is raise public awareness of him, speak with his family, gather prominent representatives of the Ethiopian-Israeli community and create a “We haven’t forgotten Avera” campaign. This would be a gold mine, and also egg on Netanyahu’s face.

Because if the basis of the whole story is the reader or viewer’s ability to identify with the hero, then Israeli society doesn’t identity with either Ethiopian-Israelis or the mentally ill. We can’t count on Yael Dan or Aviv Geffen, or on the next Eurovision star.

So take this story, Gantz. Run with it. And by doing it for political gain, you’ll eventually come to do it just because it’s right.

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