Gilad Shalit completed the Eastern portion of his four city Canadian tour, having visited Toronto and Montreal on Sept. 16 and 17, 2013 respectively, receiving a warm welcome and greeted by large crowds at both synagogues where he spoke; Toronto's Beth Tzedec Congregation and Montreal's Congregation Shaar Hashomayim. Shalit was scheduled to give four speaking engagements this September to the Canadian cities with the largest Jewish populations; Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. The tour continued on in Western Canada on Sept. 22 in Calgary and concludes on Sept. 29, 2013 in Vancouver.
Shalit was captured by Hamas near the Gaza border on June 25, 2006 and remained captive there until Oct. 18, 2011. The Jewish National Fund is sponsoring the tour; they have been a supporter of Shalit throughout his captivity and since his release. The speaking engagements are a chance for Shalit to his express his gratitude, and to thank the Canadian Jewish community for their support.
Shalit's first stop was Toronto where 3000 attended the engagement at Beth Tzedec Congregation, where he seemed a bit overwhelmed by the large turnout. The scheduled two hours was filled primarily with speeches by the synagogue's leader Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, Canadian dignitaries and JNF CEO Josh Cooper, who hosted the event. Three Canadian government dignitaries also spoke Linda Frum, a Conservative in Canada's Senate, Jason Kenney, the Minister of Employment and Social Development and Minister for Multiculturalism and Chris Alexander, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau and the Israeli Consul General DJ Schneeweiss also attended the event taking inactive roles.
Before Shalit spoke, Jason Kimelman talked about his sister Marnie, who was tragically killed at age 17 in 1990 on a Tel Aviv beach in Israel, when a man made pipe bomb exploded where she was sitting, cutting her life short. The terrorist responsible Yasser Hijazi, for the attack was one of the Palestinian prisoners released in exchange for Shalit's freedom, Kimelman explained; "This was and is the right thing to do. Israel had no choice but to bring Gilad home and ensure he was safe. This isn't about politics, it's about family… If my brother is in trouble and needed my help, there is nothing I wouldn't do - nothing. From where I stand, we are Jews, and from an early age I was told to do the right thing. Here the right thing was to bring our own brother home."
Kimelman also spoke at Shalit's Calgary stop and will speak in at the Vancouver engagement. As well, a video of his Toronto speech was played for the Montreal event.
After Kimelman's emotional remarks, JNF's short biographical video introduced Shalit, who came onto the stage. The audience finally had the oppotunity to see who they had been praying to be freed from captivity for so many years. Secondly, most people who first met Shalit were surprised at his slight build and how much younger than his 27 years he appears to be.
Shalit spoke for very little of the time of the scheduled event, he formally spoke to the audience in English. He later gave a question and answer period where he spoke more at length in his native Hebrew. More comfortable he delved into more details, speaking about his ordeal. He told the crowd; "I was never supposed to be up here, speaking to 3,000 people," but rather lead a "normal life" by attending university in Israel, continuing he said; "But this was not my fate."
Shalit also thanked the audience, which had been the main purpose of the speaking tour; "I'm so thankful that you counted the days of my captivity and never forgot about me. I was not even a religious Jew but I appreciated your prayers. I am inspired by your commitment." Additionally, Shalit expressed his appreciation to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper “for everything Canada did to advocate on my behalf.”
The next evening on Tuesday, Sept. 17, Shalit spoke again in Montreal at the Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Westmount to an audience of almost 1500 who came to see him and hear him speak. The event featured almost the same schedule line-up and dignitaries speaking as in Toronto.
JNF Canada chief executive officer Josh Cooper, who is hosting all four events, stated to Shalit; "You truly are everyone's special son. You have become a symbol, an icon for the Jewish People everywhere."
The Canadian government dignitaries speaking at the Montreal stop included Mount Royal MP Irwin Cotler and Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander. MP Cotler said told Shalit, that the Jewish community "demonstrated the power of solidarity for a just cause… You inspired a whole country, a whole people, a whole world. Jewry came together in a common cause."
Minister Alexander praised Israel's courage in making the prisoner swap that secured Shalit's release saying; it was "not a sign of weakness on Israel's part, as its enemies have tried to spin it, but of strength and moral courage." He also spoke of Canada and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's unwavering support of Israel; "The reason is not that it is necessarily in our interest, as narrowly construed, but because we share values."
Shalit spoke for 15 minutes, the content of his remarks were similar to those he gave the night before in Toronto. Coming unto to the stage at the synagogue he received a standing ovation. Shalit again spoke about the planned path for his life that was interrupted when he was kidnapped and because of his notoriety after will never be "normal." Shalit told the audience; "Now I am trying to live a normal life, but people stop me on the street and take pictures with me. In the shuk, vendors come out of their shops and give me food. Life will never be normal, but I am making strides… I think I have a bright future in Israel."
He also thanked the Montreal Jewish community for their prayers; "Religious and secular, right-wing and left-wing, old and young, gathered to call for my release. I'm so thankful that you counted the days of my captivity and never forgot about me…. I am not religious myself, but I appreciate your prayers every Shabbat, and thank you for your spiritual support. All of Israel is responsible for one another, and you proved that."
Prior to Shalit's speaking event, some fortunate children from the various Montreal Jewish schools, both the elementary and high schools had the opportunity to meet with him. He was hosted in Montreal by the Shaar Hashomayim's Rabbi Adam Sheier, who had the opportunity to play some basketball with Shalit at the Shaar's Segal Recreation Center.
In what is becoming a tradition on the tour, both cities presented Shalit at the end of the event with jerseys from the cities two hockey teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Montreal Canadians, personalized with Shalit's name and the number 18, representing life in the Jewish tradition. In Toronto he was also gifted with an "aboriginal carving."
The tour received a little extra press when it caused a controversy, which commenced when the Jewish Tribune published on June 18, 2013 a harsh criticism of Gilad Shalit's speaking tour to Canada sponsored by Jewish National Fund (JNF) Canada. The Jewish Tribune is the newspaper associated the Jewish organization B'nai B'rith International, the article was written by their Israel correspondent Atara Beck, who was worried Shalit "could now become a new Israeli icon," she did not believe he deserved the attention and elevated status. The article resulted in a backlash from Jewish and Israeli news media. Unfortunately the actual tour may be seeing large turnouts, but the news media is not reporting much about it.
Shalit was captured by Hamas near the Gaza border on June 25, 2006. During the same raid two Israeli soldiers were killed; Hanan Barak and Pavel Slutzker. He was taken to Gaza and kept there the whole five years he was in captivity. Hamas immediately demanded the release of 1000 Palestinian prisoners for Shalit's freedom, but Israel's prime minister at the time, Ehud Olmert refused to negotiate with terrorists. Through the years proof was sent several times that Shalit was alive; however Palestinians refused to allow the Red Cross in to give him medical attention his desperately needed.
Many protested Shalit's captivity in Israel and the Diaspora, campaigns called for his freedom, and Shalit's father Noam actively participated in the marches and protests held in his son's honor, many of which ended up outside the prime minister's residence and office. The United Nations, leaders from the G8, France, Germany, Russia, and even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called for his release. While Egypt, Turkey, a representative for Pope Benedict, and former United States President Jimmy Carter attempted to negotitate Shalit's release.
In 2010, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began negotiating Shalit's release, but claimed Hamas's demands were too high. In 2011, after an intense summer campaign protesting Shalit's captivity, Netanyahu finally relented and negotiated for his release with Hamas; in total 1027 Palestinian prisoners including terrorists were released in exchange for Gilad Shalit, with 477 Palestinians freed at the time of his release.
Although some Israelis did not approve of the prisoner swap, an overwhelming majority of 79 percent approved. Of those who did not approve, 14 percent still wanted Shalit to be released. Finally after 1944 days in captivity, on Oct. 18, 2011, Shalit was freed and transferred to Israel; he could hardly walk upon his release. He was met by Prime Minister Netanyahu when he reached Israeli soil, and then proceeded to go home to Mitzpe Hila. Upon his official discharge from the IDF in April 2012, he was given the rank of Sergeant Major.
Although Shalit might not have the "normal life" he planned to have, he is continuing on with some of his original plans, he will start his university studies at Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Tel Aviv focusing on economics and sustainability. He also has been working as a sports reporter for the Hebrew newspaper, Yedioth Achronot, which allowed him to cover a variety of high profile sporting events including last year's NBA finals, which Shalit said "was a fantastic experience."
The theme of the speaking tour was not only Gilad Shalit having the opportunity to thank the Canadian Jewish community for their prayers as he previous did in speaking engagements in Australia and Latin America, but how much united the Jewish community was when he was a captive, with everyone praying for his return. By the look of the turnout, the crowds and the emotional words spoken, Shalit is still a unifying force for the community.
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes JBuzz & Together with Israel. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are Northern American Jewish news, Israeli news & politics, and Jewish history, religion and cultural news.