What does Gilad Schalit have to do with you?
"Israeli or Jew?" I enquire of the soldiers sitting in front of me. "Which label better characterizes you?" The overwhelmingly majority say the first - every one of the hundreds of times I have asked this question as a reserve soldier under the command of the IDF's chief education officer.
"And to the extent that you feel the latter also applies to you, what are the three most important things one need do to be a good Jew?" Here, too, the response is remarkably consistent: live in Israel, speak Hebrew, serve in the army. "Oh," I respond innocently enough, "like the Druse." "Yeah, sort of, no, not exactly..." they stutter in rejoinder.
"Another question," I continue. "A few years from now you're on a Hebrew committee. You have one yet to allocate. There are two remaining candidates. The first is a young woman from Cleveland, a teacher in a Jewish day school who writes in her application that she believes it's important to spend some time in Jerusalem if she's to convey to her students the meaning of the centrality of Israel in Jewish life. The second is a young Druse. He's just completed his army service, and wants to make a career of teaching in his village, raising another generation of citizens loyal to Israel. Who gets the scholarship?"
The answer, again, is all but unanimous. "The Druse," they say, explaining that he's fulfilled his obligation to the state, that what we need most are loyal citizens prepared to go into the army, that Hebrew University is an Israeli institution..."
"Hold on," I interrupt. "Hebrew University's fund-raisers are always touting it as being the university of the Jewish people, and the was probably collected from donors abroad." I don't succeed in convincing them.
"Okay," I acquiesce. "The Druse gets the scholarship. But the Jewish woman manages to get from elsewhere and ends up here, too. Toward the end of her year of studies, she comes to you and says she has a problem. She had every intention of going back to the States, but things have become more complicated. During the term she fell in love with a fellow student who has now asked her to stay here and marry him. What should she do?"
"Stay, of course," they tell me.
"Oh, I forgot to mention one thing," I interject. "The person she fell in love with? He's the Druse you gave the scholarship to."
Silence. "What's the problem?" I ask.
"She's Jewish," responds one of the soldiers. "It's not right for her to marry someone who isn't. She should forget about him and go back to America." The others nod their agreement.
"Hold on," I challenge them. "You just told me that the main thing is to have loyal citizens here in Israel, and that the most important expressions of being a good Jew are living here, speaking Hebrew and serving in the army. No one said anything about marrying someone Jewish."
"But this is different," they object, and start arguing with me. As the session continues, I ask them about changing the flag of Israel and the national anthem so that all of Israel's citizens might feel comfortable with them. They reject the proposal out of hand. I suggest that we make Sunday rather than Shabbat our day of rest, so as to be in line with the rest of the world. That is totally unacceptable as well. Finally, I ask them if they feel they are serving in the army of the State of Israel or that of the Jewish people. By this time they have become a bit more wary of my questions and more cautious in responding, but still the clear majority say that the job of the IDF is protecting the people living here.
"And how many of you would volunteer for a dangerous military mission to rescue Jews in distress somewhere else in the world?" They all raise their hands, and I rest my case.
KOL YISRAEL areivim zeh b'zeh. All Jews are responsible for one another, and the sense of mutual accountability transcends national boundaries. Back in July, popular musician Aviv Gefen wrote in a song to Gilad Schalit, "your heart beats incessantly in our heart... you are, in the end, the child of us all." He is also the soldier of us all, and the efforts of Zionist federations and Jewish organizations around the world over the past 30 months make it clear that the "all" in Gefen's lyrics has been internalized by Jews everywhere. The hundreds of rallies, marches and letter-writing campaigns initiated by Jews of the Diaspora to expedite the return of one of our captives give expression to the fundamental value entrenched in our tradition that we must go to every length to redeem hostages. But they haven't done the job.
Now, as the prospect of Gilad spending his 1,000th day in captivity looms, the Schalit family has moved into a tent pitched opposite Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's home to press him to do everything possible to effect Gilad's return before he leaves office. They are being visited by an endless stream of people. You can visit them as well, in a virtual tent that has been set up alongside their own, letting Gilad's parents know they are not alone. Your moral support may be registered through the Facebook group BringHomeGiladSchalit, or at www.doingzionism.org.
What does Gilad Schalit have to do with you? Nothing more than a willingness to put his life on the line not only for the State of Israel, but for the well-being of Jews everywhere. When he gets back home, he should know that that readiness was appreciated.
The writer is a member of the executives of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization, where he represents MERCAZ Olami, the Zionist arm of the worldwide Conservative/Masorti Movement.