Capitol Letter / Riding for Gilad

About 20 bikers donned 'Gilad Shalit is alive' T-shirts for Sunday's Washington rally.

There are some things we as Israelis do instinctively. Like hugging, when abroad, a perfect stranger who happens to speak Hebrew, calling him "my brother" even before you discover half a dozen common friends. Or feeling immense pride to see a Washington D.C. crowd cheering a dozen heavy motorcycles at the annual "Rolling Thunder" event flying the Israeli and American flags, and big pictures of the captive soldier Gilad Shalit bearing the slogan "Free Gilad!"

Usually preoccupied with our own country's problems, we might even forget for a second that this impressive event (with about 400,000 bikers gathering in Washington from all over the U.S. ) was established to raise awareness about American POWs and MIAs. It was a small, but astonishing encounter between the U.S., the huge country where bumper stickers support "our boys" yet many citizens didn't necessarily have any friends in the military, and Israel, a country where the national becomes personal, and deeply personal - and "our boys" is very literal for every family. Yet, the crowd was cheering the group carrying flags with the Israeli soldier - and as far as I could see, no bikers carried pictures of U.S. army soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held since June 2009 by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network. There were many black flags bearing a silhouette of a soldier, head bowed, for POWs, but nothing as personal.

Gilad Shalit motorcycle run
Natasha Mozgovaya

Last year, there was only one rider for Gilad Shalit, who drove with many thousands of other bikers from the vast Pentagon parking lot, around the National Mall and to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This year, the same rider, former Israeli Oren Poleg, asked the Israeli Embassy and the Jewish Community Relations Council for some help, the word was spread, and on Sunday, about 20 bikers donned "Gilad Shalit is alive" T-shirts, decorated their bikes with flags and stickers, and gathered at the Pentagon parking lot.

Some other bikers came to ask what the flags were about. The group members were ready to explain.

Abby Propis Simms and her husband Gary from Chevy Chaise, Maryland, have been involved in public advocacy for various Jewish causes for years - including participating in protest demonstrations against the treatment of Soviet Jews, and in the last six years, the annual ride to raise awareness of Holocaust education, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, with the Jewish Motorcyclists Alliance. For them, riding for Shalit was almost a given.

"In our synagogue [the conservative synagogue "Or Kodesh"], our congregation prays each Shabat for the American soldiers - and we pray also for Gilad Shalit," Abby told Haaretz. "In the Jewish community, he is at the front of our minds. Gilad is still alive and we are hopeful, otherwise we wouldn't be here. We had some people coming to us, asking how come it wasn't solved yet. So it can't hurt - and maybe it can help. As for this ride, the whole point of the "Rolling Thunder" started as raising awareness of POWs, with flags with numbers, how many people were missing in action or held captive in each war. The principle is the same."

When Oren Poleg asked the Rolling Thunder executive director Artie Muller if it's okay to join the ride with Shalit's pictures, the answer was: "A veteran is a veteran." Poleg admits that when he started the initiative, people didn't really understand what he wanted. Some joined as late as the evening before the ride.

"In the U.S., people are aware of some basic things about the conflict and do not necessarily remember that Hamas is a terrorist organization - it was forgotten in some dark corner. We wanted to add the face to this story, the face of the young guy, and to put it back on the table," Poleg said. "Frankly, I was surprised that people were so responsive. I just hope we won't have to do it again next year."

David Dragon, a rider from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with a biker's vest, mustache and tattoos, is one of those who came to ask what the group is up to. After an explanation, he said: "I've never heard about this guy [Shalit] before. But it's awesome what these guys are doing. I'm just sorry that in our country many people became so complacent. I guess it's up to us to keep people aware."

Dragon, who did not serve in the military but has participated in Rolling Thunder for about a decade out of solidarity with U.S. soldiers, hinted at some of his camp's frustrations - he isn't too pleased with what President Obama is doing. Even Osama bin Laden's death, in his opinion, wasn't something to be impressed about the president. "It was the military," he stresses. "And if I were from Israel, I'd be worried about what I heard from him about your country's borders."

Of course, the Gilad Shalit group wasn't the only excitement that morning at the Pentagon parking lot. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin decided to join the riders - with a black helmet and three of her family members, she arrived there at the first stop of her "One Nation" tour, whose goal is still unclear. Her supporters hope it's the first step ahead of announcing her bid for the presidency in 2012, her critics are sure it's another public relations stunt.

This way or another, the enthusiastic welcoming proved that as a candidate, commentator or celebrity, Sarah Palin has no intention of being left out of the 2012 game.

Israelis might catch up with the presidential race with typical delay (who has a year and a half to follow each candidate's appearance? ). What is pretty sure, despite the economic issues which are expected to remain high on the campaign's agenda, Israel might gain this time even higher visibility as September draws closer. And no doubt, the president's advisors will have to explain over and over his "1967 borders-with-agreed-swaps" speech - which he already did himself, but it probably won't discourage his conservative rivals much.

It might be frustrating for the president's supporters and for those who would prefer a real policy debate instead of focusing on "whether President Obama is a lover of Israel" - but it's slightly less dumb than trying to prove over and over again that he wasn't born in Kenya.