Still Missing

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Dog Tags
09 Jul 2008

The sword is worse than death, famine is harder than the sword, captivity is the worst of all.” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra. 8b)

It hangs like a yoke around my neck—albatross-like. I put it on daily, save Shabbat, semachot (joyous occasions), and holidays. With time it has undergone some changes. More names, less names. To my sorrow another update is needed—three more names to be exact. But I am loathe to inquire if an updated dog tag has been manufactured. Somehow I feel that if the names are imprinted on an updated dog tag, then perhaps it will signal the finality of three lives.

The first dog tag I wore bore the names of Missing-In-Action Israeli soldiers Zecharia Baumel, Ron Arad, Yehuda Katz, Tzvi Feldman, Adi Avitan, Omar Sawayid and Benny Avraham. On January 29, 2004 there was a prisoner exchange between Israel and the Hizballah. Businessman Elchanan Tannenbaum was returned alive to Israel, along with the remains of Adi, Omar and Benny who had been abducted and killed by the Hizbollah.

My present dog tag carries the names of five MIA soldiers: Ron Arad, Zecharia Baumel, Guy Chever, Yehuda Katz and Tzvi Feldman. Zecharia, Yehuda and Tzvi were captured on June 11, 1982 during a tank battle in Syrian-controlled Sultan Ya’akub. Ron, an Israeli Air Force navigator was shot down in 1986. Guy is an Israeli soldier who disappeared from his Golan army base without a trace on August 17, 1997.

In the Sultan Ya’akub battle during the 1982 Lebanon War, two Israeli tanks were disabled. One tank, commanded by Hezi Shai, included soldiers Ariel Leiberman, Tzvi and Zacharia. Hezi Shai was captured that night by members of the Popular Front headed by Ahmed Jibril. He was hidden in Damascus for two years. It was only after information about his captivity was obtained by Israel and a lot of international influence exerted that Jibril admitted he was holding Shai. Shai was returned to Israel on May 29, 1985 through a prisoner exchange. Ariel Leiberman was caught by Syrians the day after the battle and held prisoner until a prisoner exchange with Syria on June 28, 1984. Tzvi and Zachary were seen alive afterwards in the area of the battlefield. The commander of the second tank, Zohar Lipschitz, was killed in battle. Two of the crew returned safely to Israel. The fourth crew member, Yehudah remained on the battlefield.

On the day of the battle, Syria showed the world the display of an Israeli tank along with Israeli captives in Damascus. It was only after later prisoner exchanges that it became apparent that the soldiers paraded on June 11, 1982 could only have been Tzvi, Zachary and Yehuda.

According to the Geneva Convention of 1949, which Syria signed, prisoners of war are the responsibility of the place in which they were last seen. Even though they may have been in the hands of a “Palestinian” group, this does not lessen Syria’s legal and moral responsibility for the welfare of these solders. Part of this responsibility includes granting their humane right to be seen by a Red Cross representative and communicate with their families. In the past, Syria has not been credible in statements given about the whereabouts of prisoners of war. There are documented cases where previous Syrian governments have hidden Israeli prisoners for up to twelve years and then offered them for exchange.

In 1998 the US Congress passed the Zachary Baumel Law which states that no agreements can go forward with the “Palestinians” or the Syrians without full disclosure of the fate of the Sultan Ya’akob soldiers. Former president Clinton agreed to sign the bill into law with the stipulation that it could be implemented only at the president’s discretion.

At Camp David, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak could have insisted that Clinton abide by the law and tell Arafat that there would be no negotiations until Arafat tells them about the half dog tag of Zachary that was given to Yitzchok Rabin’s negotiating team. Both Clinton and Barak turned a blind eye. President George Bush failed in this respect as well. Miriam Baumel, mother of Zack as he was called by family and friends, faithfully wears half of Zack’s dog tag.

Zack had wanted to work with young people He was accepted to Hebrew University and planned to study psychology the fall after his discharge. His discharge was scheduled for July 5, 1982, and he had a summer job lined up with the Jewish Agency to work with youth from abroad.

A few days before the fateful battle, Miriam Baumel dropped off a package for her son at the post office. Then she and her husband went to see a friend in Kiryat Motzkin (near Haifa) who was dying of cancer. They arranged to stay at other friends for Shabbat. When they arrived at their hosts on erev Shabbat the Baumels rang the bell. Their friend opened the door with fear all over her face. “Don’t ever ring the bell in wartime,” she scolded them. (In wartime a ring on the doorbell often signifies bad news.) Their hosts’ son was in the air force and they had not heard from him for a week.

The following Tuesday morning the doorbell rang at the Baumel’s home in Bayit Vegan. On the table before them lay a postcard they’d just received from Zack, “Everything’s okay. Looks like I may not be home for a while.”

“We received a visit from kevutzat Iyov. (“The Job Group,” a reference to the three friends who came to visit Job.) Nothing registered. The army didn’t know anything more than that our son was missing,” Miriam Baumel stated.

The Baumels and the other families of the MIA’s want closure. If the soldiers are dead, then they should be returned to Israel for a proper burial. The families, friends and those touched by the stories of the Israeli MIA soldiers could then mourn. Not knowing whether or not their sons are alive or dead is a nightmare. Zack’s mother has a recurrent dream. “I keep looking and looking, but I can’t find him. I go places, and suddenly obstacles sprout up before me.”

Yona Baumel, father of Zack, told me, “I had a recurrent dream of Zack coming off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport with his nieces and nephew, who he has never met, lined up to greet him. There was also an IDF colonel in the waiting line. She had played a very active part in the early years when Zack went missing. Generally speaking I do not sleep well and suffice with about four fitful hours of sleep.”

My present dog tag lacks the names of the most recent MIA soldiers: Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev who were kidnapped by Hizbollah in 2006, and Gilad Shalit who was kidnapped in the summer of 2006.

Numerous plans have been discussed regarding prisoner exchanges. One of the main terrorists that Israel may release from prison is Lebanese arch-terrorist Samir Kuntar. In 1979 he shot Israeli civilian Danny Haran and drowned him on the Nahariya beach in front of his four year-old daughter Einat. Huntar then bludgeoned Einat to death, crushing her skull with rocks and his rifle butt. Kuntar was also responsible for the death of Einat’s infant sister who was suffocated by accident as she hid with her terrified mother in a closet during the attack. Two policemen were killed as well. Kuntar is serving four consecutive life terms in prison.

The only MIA Israel has recently heard from is Gilad Shalit. July 2 marked the Hebrew calendar date of the second anniversary of his abduction. I can well understand the family’s desire that Israel exchange whatever number of terrorists that is requested in order to get their son back alive. On the other hand, to release terrorists will undoubtedly lead to their killing and wounding more Israelis. It will also lead to more soldier abductions so that more terrorists can be released from Israeli prisons.

Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg the Maharam, who was a leading 13th century Talmudist, was imprisoned by Emperor Rudolf I who demanded an exorbitant ransom for his release. The Jewish community collected the ransom money that was required for his release. Rabbi Meir forbade the Jews to give the ransom money because he knew that the non-Jews would then kidnap more Jews. He died in prison and it was only after fourteen years had passed from his demise that the Jews were allowed to bury his body.

Dr. Aryeh Bachrach, head of the Bereaved Parents’ Forum and spokesman for the Almagor Terror Victim Association stated, “…The idea of giving live terrorists for dead bodies is dangerous for Gilad Shalit as well. After all, it is very difficult logistically for Hamas to keep him alive; why shouldn’t they just shoot him in the head in the knowledge that Israel pays high prices for dead bodies as well?”

Unlike the families of the more recent kidnapping victims, Yona Baumel feels that his family has been abandoned. He feels that the families of the more veteran MIA soldiers have been left alone and it is up to them to gather information, which requires a lot of foreign travel. Mr. Baumel told me, “We have a ‘team’ of helpers throughout the world who we turn to for specific projects. Many of these people are not Jewish, but they are extremely committed to our cause. There is a hard core of friends who we turn to on a daily basis. Sometimes we use them as a sounding board; other times we ask their help for concrete matters.”

When I asked him how he feels about the various suggestions for prisoner exchanges he responded, “I think that Israel has gone off the deep end because it has allowed the politicians to make a political issue out of it and thereby raised the price. The IDF has not been competent, but the Israeli governments have been worse.”

How do the Baumels cope on a daily basis? “Our top priority is getting information about the MIAs and effecting their release. We try to be good parents and grandparents and lead as normal a life as possible under the circumstances,” says Mr. Baumel.

Among the grandchildren there is one grandson. How do the Baumels feel about his becoming a soldier? Mr. Baumel responded, “We now have one grandson, who is seven years old who has just been promoted from first grade. The odds that I will be around eleven years from now when he is eligible for the draft are very slim. We hope that by then peace will reign in the region. One of our granddaughters recently got married and her husband was called up for reserve duty on Har Dov. Who says we don’t have worries with girls?”

I spoke with the Baumel’s daughter Osna. “I think about Zack very often, but not every day. I know that there is a cloud hanging over the family every day. I try to think positive thoughts and to be involved with life. The grandchildren have been affected by knowing that they have an uncle who is an MIA. They see life as a mission.

“Each family of the MIAs develops their own coping mechanism. I started a gemach (a charity) for Ethiopians in the merit of Zack. It keeps me very busy. I fundraise in order to help out indigent brides and grooms, families with financial difficulties, sick children, etc. It keeps me charged.

“Our family values are very strong. We help each other. We have a division of labor. My parents are the ‘Foreign Ministry’ who deal with the aspects of the search for Zack and other MIAs. The other families of MIA soldiers look to my father as their leader since he took the initiative. I’m the “Interior Ministry’ in that I deal with the family.”

What does Yona Baumel want the public to do? “Raise the subject whenever possible with their elected officials to put pressure on Syria. Our information has been that the Syrians are in control of the MIAs. We are believers in prayer and ask that prayers be said for all the MIAs.”

On Wednesday, July 2 the Hebrew calendar date of the second anniversary of the abduction of Gilad, Jews throughout the world recited chapter 121 of Psalms, “Esa Einai” in order to beseech G-d’s mercy to have Gilad released.

Every Shabbat after candle lighting I recite a prayer in Hebrew which Osna composed about two years after Zack was captured. “May it be Your will, Hashem our G-d and the G-d of our fathers that You will shine Your face upon all of Your children that are immersed in sorrow, and specifically the captives and missing Israeli soldiers from the wars of Israel, and return them speedily to the bosom of their families and bring them speedily from darkness to light and from mourning to Shabbat and Yom Tov. Amen, selah.”

Osna confides, “I was very close to Zack. The price of love is pain. Mothers in Israel have a lot of courage to love their children, especially the boys, knowing that they will eventually serve in the army.”

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.