Imagine that a 19-year-old American soldier was captured by terrorists and dragged through a tunnel across our border.
Imagine that the U.S. Army failed to recover this abducted soldier and that he remained in terrorist hands for weeks that turned into months that became years.
Imagine that the entire nation came to know this soldier’s name and that every day, at schools across the country, children prayed for his release.
Imagine that all of this went on for five years.
Then imagine that one day, against all odds, he returned, gaunt and pale. And you and everyone around you — a whole country — got to watch him quietly, slowly and then gorgeously find his way back to life.
It would move you to tears. It would make you believe all the clichés about how life can change in an instant, about never giving up hope. It might even transform how you saw your country and the world.
That is exactly what happened last week in Israel.
In 2006, a 19-year-old from northern Israel named Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas in a cross-border raid. Two Israeli soldiers were killed in the ambush. Shalit, wounded, was dragged through an underground tunnel into the Gaza Strip.
Initial attempts by the Israeli military to rescue him failed, and so the push to save him became a public one, led by Shalit’s parents, Aviva and Noam. First they walked for 12 days from their village to Jerusalem. Then they set up a tent outside the prime minister’s home. And they did not move.
They were joined in that tent, and at demonstrations across the country, by regular Israelis. Jews around the world held rallies. Activists plastered Shalit’s face on billboards, hung signs declaring “Gilad is still alive” and placed life-size cardboard cutouts of the soldier around the country. And this is to say nothing of the campaign on social media, where it seemed every profile picture was replaced by Gilad Shalit’s face.
In a country with compulsory conscription for Jewish citizens, it was not a stretch for people to insist that it could be their father, their brother, their son, left to rot in a hole in Gaza.
There are Americans rotting in similar holes. Iran has disappeared the C.I.A. consultant Robert Levinson for more than 13 years. The Islamic Republic is also holding captive Baquer Namazi, an 83-year-old former representative for Unicef who is in poor health, and his son, Siamak. Paul Overby, an author from western Massachusetts, has been missing since May 2014 when he was kidnapped in Afghanistan. Austin Tice, a former Marine and a freelance journalist, is in his eighth year of captivity in or around Syria. Last month, Moustafa Kassem, an Egyptian-American who was arrested more than six years ago, starved himself to death in an Egyptian prison.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I had to Google some of those names.
In contrast, like many of the world’s 14 million Jews, I came to feel as if Gilad Shalit was a family member. Which is really the only way to understand why, in October 2011, Israel released 1,027 prisoners, some of them hardened terrorists, more than 300 of whom were serving life sentences, in exchange for this one ordinary soldier.
To the casual observer, the exchange defied rationality. But only 14 percent of Israelis opposed it. Among them were parents just like the Shalits — only their sons and daughters had been murdered in terrorist attacks ordered by the people Israel was now freeing. Some quickly made good on their promise to kill again.
And yet an overwhelming majority of Israelis — 79 percent — supported the exchange.
Jews will tell you that this episode showed an Israel capable of living up to Jewish values, in this case the value of choosing life. That the government followed the Scripture: Anyone who saves one has saved the world. That it took seriously Maimonides’s insistence that “pidyon shevuyim,” redeeming captives, is among the greatest of all God’s commandments.
It also proved that the nation-state of the Jewish people functions as a family in a way that occasionally makes normal statecraft, the national calculations of power and interest, irrelevant. The reason Gilad had to be saved, at whatever cost, was because he was kin.
And so when the news broke on Valentine’s Day that he had proposed to his girlfriend, Nitzan Shabbat, the joy was familial, too, as if a brother who had miraculously cheated death wasn’t just surviving, but was given a chance at a second life.
In a way I’m hesitant to make this particular joy anyone’s but Gilad’s. He and his fiancée deserve to keep every ounce of it for themselves. But the truth about national pride is that it isn’t a finite resource. It is something that multiplies exponentially.
It makes me wonder what kind of country America would become if we regularly, collectively, campaigned for the release of our fellow citizens whose names I had to look up. What would change about this country if we felt that their fate was our responsibility? Perhaps it would help us remember that we have a shared destiny to begin with.
I’m certain that any pointy-head would tell you that it is foolish for any country, especially a young one rapidly becoming much bigger and more powerful, to willingly hostage its foreign policy to the fate of a single soldier. But it seems to me there is a lot of wisdom in thinking of a country more like a family.
Bari Weiss (@bariweiss) is an Opinion staff writer and editor and the author of “How to Fight Anti-Semitism.”
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: email@example.com.