Gilad Shalit, a 26-year-old Israeli soldier released from five-year captivity by Hamas in 2011 came to Yale Monday afternoon in a rare public appearance.
In an event hosted by the Eliezer Society, Shalit and 14 members of his unit addressed an audience of approximately 200 students and faculty in Davies Auditorium. Professor Charles Hill, a former Israeli government official, and co-founder of the Eliezer Society Rabbi Shmully Hecht introduced Shalit and his unit, who then fielded prepared questions from audience members about their reactions to Shalit’s 2006 abduction and life in the Israeli Defense Force.
The Slifka Center, Yale Friends of Israel and the Yale administration, headed by Provost Peter Salovey and Executive Director of the Office of International Affairs Don Filer, helped Eliezer coordinate the day’s logistics and planning, said Aaron Hakim ’13, a member of Eliezer. He added that the Eliezer Society brought Shalit and his unit to campus during a 10-day-long visit to the New York area which aimed to commemorate the one-year anniversary of his release from captivity and provide closure for the unit members.
“From the day Gilad Shalit was released, we hoped to bring him and his unit to Yale in a celebration of their courage and moral leadership,” Hakim said.
Students interviewed said they appreciated the opportunity to hear the story of Shalit’s abduction firsthand. Danielle Ellison ’15, who heads YFI and helped organize the event, said she thinks Shalit’s visit garnered significant attention on campus because his capture and eventual release captivated global Jewish communities.
“Essentially, the Jewish community around the world and in the U.S. got so attached to following Gilad’s story,” she said. “After he was released, there was an incredible feeling of relief and pride. We wanted to be able to share that feeling with the Yale community.”
In 2006, Shalit was captured by Hamas, a Palestinian political party considered a terrorist organization by the United States, Israel and Europe, in a raid on the Israeli border that killed two of his unit members. He was released in a 2011 exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, a negotiation that met considerable international attention.
The event was off the record to give the soldiers an opportunity to share their personal experiences freely without fear of their comments being “politicized,” said Danny Avraham ’15, who served in the Israeli military before coming to Yale.
Attendees said Shalit never spoke directly to the audience besides saying “Thank you” during the concluding remarks, though members of the unit answered audience questions through a translator. Shalit received a standing ovation from the audience when he was introduced with his unit, several attendees added.
Ellison said Hecht contacted her a few weeks ago about working as a student organizer for the event, which members of Eliezer had been planning since last year. She added that University administrators were minimally involved besides providing security for the event. Assistant Chief of Police Michael Patten said Yale assigned a supervisor and two police officers for the event, following normal security protocols.
Members of Eliezer, Slifka and YFI discussed whether or not to make the event open to the public, Ellison said, ultimately distributing tickets through several student organizations — including the Politic, Slifka, the Yale College Democrats and Yale International Relations Association — earlier this month.
Hill said in an interview with the News that the Yale community can learn from the values communicated in the experiences of Shalit and his unit in the Israel Defense Forces.
“What is important is the concept of not leaving a fellow soldier behind,” Hill said. “That’s a major value in our civilization and in our military’s sense of the right way to do things.”
Though student groups featured Shalit himself as a speaker at the event in advertisements, a majority of students interviewed said they understood why Shalit did not talk about his own experience.
Will Jordan ’13 said he was not surprised that Shalit declined to speak because he thinks Shalit is still transitioning into civilian life.
But Leah Sarna ’14 said she thought the event was poorly organized and orchestrated, attributing her disappointment in part to “false advertising” that Shalit would speak.
“I don’t think I got anything out of it and that was upsetting,” she said.
Elizabeth Villarreal ’16 said she was surprised by the event’s unscrutinized assumption of an “unquestioned Israel-America alliance.”
Avraham said Shalit’s story carries an additional emotional aspect for Israelis on campus. After the event, Avraham gave the entire unit a tour of Yale’s campus, and he said they were excited when they noticed Hebrew on the Yale crest.
Gilad Shalit was a Sergeant Major in the Israeli Army.
Correction Oct. 16
Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article inaccurately paraphrased Danny Avraham ’15.