My Journey to London Overseas and Gilad Shalit’s Release in Retrospect
“Why is Israel occupying Palestine?” ”Yahud” “My heart goes out to the Jewish People” “Free Palestine” “I support Israel”. These statements confronted me on a daily basis, as a resident in London, near Kings Cross St Pancras, until my departure. In this period of time, I had been frequented with as many diverse political memes about Israel as expressed in the Hadag Nahash song, “Shirat Hasticker”.
This diverse array of politically and socially charged remarks came despite most never actually meeting a Jew, nonetheless an Israeli before. In 2011-2012 I lived for a semester in London as an exchange student at University of London’s School for Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
For most Londoners, I was there first experience with a Jew. I distinctly remember introducing myself atop a rooftop bar my first week in London when I was approached by one of the residents of my hall. He cheerfully greeted me with “Where are you from” I retorted with “America.” He pried deeper and I cringed “Yes but from where are your ancestors from?” I just returned from Malaysia, China and Vietnam and I learned from my travels up until this point it was usually safer to conceal my Jewish-Israeli identity. However, I decided that London would be different. “Israel, I am Jewish” I responded.
From this point on until my departure from London, I graciously accepted the role of cultural emissary for my people. Students all knew I was Israeli, and a Jew, many times before I had even the opportunity to meet them.
In the period of time beginning upon my arrival until two months into my stay, there was a series of demonstrations at the University against Israel at SOAS. In the first weeks, there had been the “Celebrate Palestine” demonstrations and counter protests by pro-Israel activists.
George Galloway, who has become notorious for his extreme anti-Israel sediment, also made a presence during my stay in 2011.
About two months into my program on October 17th, I was waiting to catch the train in the Underground. Peering over the shoulder of the newspaper in front of me I read, “Gilad Shalit is being released, HOME.” I felt a lump in my throat, and was unable to hold back tears. Shalit’s story struck a chord with me. Being away from home for a while now, in a foreign country, I had already begun to feel homesick. Gilad Shalit was held captive for 1,940 Days, 5 years. His pain was totally incomprehensible.
Surprised as much by the release of Gilad Shalit was I also, by the reaction of my classmates. Until this fateful day I felt a foreigner in London, frequented with hostility against Israel. This emotion shifted to comradery as texts and Facebook messages flooded my inbox within hours from British-Muslim students. “Finally Welcome Home!”
The sediment against Israel didn’t surprise me. However, the reaction of my British-Muslim classmates did.
While the 2006 Lebanon War and Gaza Wars both saw steep increases in Anti-Semitism, the release of Gilad Shalit had the reverse effect and was a PR victory for Israel.
As the world rejoiced, Jews overseas saw a rare window of time when public attention was briefly turned from vilifying Israel to harmonizing with one of its victims, Gilad Shalit.
In my case, it was the impetus that helped reverse negative stigmas and bridge cultural divides.
Following the release of Gilad Shalit, until my departure. Protests died down. All but a few of my classmates and close friends were Muslim: either South Asian, European converts, or Middle Eastern. While the opinion of Israel was still sometimes negative, some revered Israel as a democratic, Jewish, mostly secular state protecting itself. All students respected my solidary with both Judaism and the Israeli flag that hung proudly in my window right above entrance to the Dinwitty resident hall. With the release of Gilad Shalit, my stay in London became more easily enjoyable and coming HOME all the more powerful.