There have been a lot of words on the Internet today about the long-awaited return of Gilad Shalit. I don’t know that any of those words speak as loudly as this image of a father embracing his son. Perhaps it is even more appropriate that Gilad’s face is obscured in the shot – he has been captive so long that his physical reality is a mysterious and now a novel fact, whereas the ache of the family awaiting his return is something all of us can immediately connect to. The way Noam Shalit envelopes his son and rests his head on his shoulder with his eyes closed is the universal embrace of all fathers who receive their child back from peril, thankful for the miracle of return that makes this hug possible. Imagine how many nights over the past five years Noam Shalit imagined this embrace? Tried to feel it? Imagined what it would smell like? Born of the greatest and prolonged trauma one can imagine for a parent, the emotion of the image is so shockingly human and raw, that one smiles even as one recognizes the vulnerability and pain it acknowledges. This most compelling of family reunions occupies the foreground of the photo, while Prime Minister Netanyahu is relegated to the background, a smiling spectator on a day when for the moment, politics in Israel can recede to an afterthought.
A photograph like this reminds us that the drama of Gilad Shalit is a family drama. It reminds us that more than just being a country of political parties, conflicts and territory, Israel is a country of families. Families with real lives. The joy of the Shalit family is twinned with the inverse drama of those families who have lost loved ones to terrorism having to endure the sight of some of those responsible for their murder go free in exchange. Out of sight of the cameras, they too will embrace each other, their grief given fresh potency, as the murderers are welcomed as heroes in Gaza and the West Bank.
On such a dramatic day, we join in feeling the joy of the Shalit family, even as we feel the pain of those other families. We are reminded of the high price Israel is forced to pay for its survival, and that that price is borne not in abstraction, but by the families of the Jewish state.