As Gershon Baskin stood over the grave of his wife’s cousin, a simple Israeli candy-maker abducted by Hamas terrorists who tortured and murdered him, he felt tortured himself.
The family of the candy-maker — Sasson was his name — asked Baskin to use the Palestinian contacts he developed in 30 years as a peace activist to save his life. Baskin tried, but he failed.
“I remember going to his late night funeral in Jerusalem and feeling more than horrible, not just because one of my wife’s first cousins was brutally murdered, but because I failed to do anything to save him,” Baskin recalled. “The family asked me to use my contacts I had developed over decades and I couldn’t bring Sasson home.
“I swore to myself standing over Sasson’s grave that night in the cemetery at Jerusalem that if ever again a situation arises where someone would ask me to help save a human life, I would not rest; I would do everything humanly possible to make sure it didn’t happen again.”
He would get his chance.
Less than a year later, on June 25, 2006, Hamas terrorists kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Shalit on a raid from Gaza. So began a five-year, four-month odyssey, not just for the young Israeli army soldier, but Baskin himself who conducted secret, often unofficial, back-channel negotiations to free him.
Baskin recounted that ordeal in amazing detail during a talk, Friday, Feb. 1, at Rodef Shalom Congregation as this year’s Milton E. Harris Annual Interfaith Lecturer.
In the past, the annual lecture was for clergy only. This year, however, Rodef Shalom opened the program to the public, which led to a capacity crowd in Freehof Hall.
For more than an hour, Baskin recounted years of secret contacts with Hamas figures, trips into Gaza, hundreds of calls, letters and text messages, stiff neck refusals from Hamas and Israeli leaders to give ground — hope raised, hope dashed — and finally the elation of seeing Shalit walk free.
“Gilad is remarkable,” Baskin said. “Everyone wants to know how this boy is doing after five years and four months in captivity.”
He described how the young man was held in three different locations during his captivity — all underground. The last place Shalit was kept was underneath a house. He said he could hear children upstairs.
In all that time, he only saw the sunlight once.
Toward the end, he lost his appetite — a manifestation of extreme vitamin D deficiency, which led to clinical depression, and finally his appetite loss.
“For the last five or six weeks in captivity, he stopped eating,” Baskin said. “They couldn’t feed him; they tried. One of the reasons why he was released was probably because they thought they were going to lose him.”
Shalit was never treated with any force or humiliation, Baskin said. He had fresh fruit, vegetables and meat to eat. He was held captive through six Ramadan periods and actually fasted himself during the last two — voluntarily.
According to Baskin, his captors offered to free him if he accepted Islam, and even to find him a wife. He refused.
He received only one letter from his parents during his captivity — the one delivered by former President Jimmy Carter through Hamas leaders in Damascus.
One each of his captors spoke English and Hebrew so he always had someone he could talk to. He had access to TV and radio for much of his captivity and watched sporting events with those who held him.
He never discussed politics — his own decision.
He had books, kept notes, played games, drew a diagram of his village, complete with the names of all the families on the houses — all to stay “engaged,” according to Baskin.
“He would have hope and then lose hope,” Baskin said. He heard his family on the radio and knew of the campaign to free him, but didn’t know about the secret track. He was told of the deal to free him a week before his release.
“That, of course, was the longest week of his life,” Baskin said.
But he survived.
“He is extraordinarily shy, and very introverted,” Baskin said of Shalit, with whom he stays in touch, “and I think those characteristics were what kept him alive and sane.”
Today, Shalit works as a sports correspondent for the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot and even covered the NBA championship, the Euro Cup and the Olympics. He hopes to go to university soon, Baskin said, and perhaps find a girlfriend.
He has a Facebook page. “Facebook was born when he was in captivity,” Baskin said. “He discovered Facebook when he came out.”
And always, the young man looks ahead.
“He doesn’t talk about the past,” Baskin said. “You can ask him questions — he doesn’t volunteer information. He talks about the future; he talks about living; he talks about appreciating life and appreciating freedom. He is completely sane, which is just a miracle.”
Admitting to an internal “Jewish mother” within him, Baskin said he loves to take Shalit to lunch. “I love to watch him eat,” he said. “It’s a real pleasure to see him devour a dessert.”
Baskin, who is writing a book about his experiences, got involved initially because of a chance meeting with a Gazan professor at a United Nations conference in Cairo before Shalit was kidnapped. After the abduction, that same professor contacted him and asked him to get involved.
He was critical of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for refusing to negotiate to bring Shalit home, but he praised the current PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, for making “the leadership decision,” setting aside his deeply held views on terrorism to close the deal for Shalit’s release — a deal, which Baskin said had been reached in principle years earlier in 2007 through Egyptian intermediaries.
“Netanyahu ruled against his own principles and his values in favor of that one Israeli soldier,” Baskin said, “because the State of Israel has a covenant with its people that enables us to have a people’s army … we don’t leave anyone behind.
“This should not be taken for granted,” he added. “When Netanyahu made that decision he transformed himself into a leader, and if there’s one thing that gives me hope for the future, it’s that if he did it once, maybe he’ll do it again.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)