Aviram Shaul misses his brother Oron. It’s been three years since Oron was, best information suggests, killed in action in Israel, and three years that Hamas is holding his body hostage. Aviram is building a life for himself, starting law school and soon moving to Tel Aviv, but he is also committed to bringing his brother’s body home. “He would do the same for me,” Aviram shared. “We were raised to love our country, be loyal and to serve.”
I had the pleasure of speaking with Aviram on Monday, May 8. He and I met at the Israeli Consulate in New York, joined by consular officials, press liaisons and an officer from the Israel Defense Forces. Translation assistance was provided, though Aviram has English enough to have answered my questions ahead of their being relayed in Hebrew.
This awful situation, which is both a public crisis and a family sadness, is common knowledge throughout Israel. It is, however, not as well known here in America. “Public memory is short,” consular officials admitted, “so this needs to be constantly discussed at home, and it needs to be widely shared in the United States.”
Their father died recently, and their mother is in poor health. In fact, Aviram hesitated to make the trip to New York as he didn’t want to be too far from his mother for too long. “You’re in charge now,” their father told Aviram before he died. “Bring him home.”
Hamas regularly sends video emails to the Shaul family, awful clips mocking their loss, with images, set to music, that I will never forget. I have a brother myself, who served in the U.S. Army, and I have children. I cannot imagine handling what I was shown with as much poise as Aviram. The details aren’t appropriate to share, but it’s worse than whatever you’re thinking.
Since my meeting last week, I have struggled with what this column is about. Is this Oron’s story? Aviram’s? Israel’s? Is it a Jewish story? A discussion on the disparity of treatment, leaving aside politics, between prisoners? Can the politics be put aside?
As I write this, it turns out that it’s a family’s story of tragic loss compounded by ongoing psychological terrorism. It’s a story of a brother’s dedication, a father dying of cancer and a broken heart, a mother struggling, a young man balancing his own life with a promise he made, and a nation readying itself to help bring a body home.
Oron wasn’t supposed to be on patrol the day he was attacked. He wasn’t initially scheduled for duty that day, but he was taking extra shifts to make up for time he had spent at an awards ceremony, away from his unit. He asked for more work because his colleagues did his while he was away. In fact, because his mother and father were sick, Oron’s commander encouraged him to avoid another dangerous tour in the field. A family medical reason was offered, in response to which Oron gave his commander the silent treatment during a 12-hour patrol. The suggestion of less-dangerous assignments wasn’t raised again. Isn’t that the way of things?
Aviram doesn’t consider himself a peacemaker. “My only priority is getting my brother’s body back,” he told me when I asked about a larger meaning or message in all this sadness. “If something good comes of doing that, if peace should come to the region, so much the better for all of us. But I’m not doing this for a bigger reason. My brother should come home as soon as possible. This is what is standing in front of us.”
He is creating ambassadors, informed families comfortable pressing his case, for when public opinion will help shape the role of third parties and foreign countries in this matter. There are no official negotiations now underway, and all efforts by intermediaries have been rebuffed by Hamas. But public opinion needs to be primed and people educated. New Yorkers are tough and authentic, so we need to believe something if we’re going to be advocates. New Yorkers drive conversations nationally, and worldwide.
“Every Jewish family in New York should know what’s happened here,” Aviram told me. “Three years without news, three years without closure. People need to know, because they don’t know.”