Originally Published April 11, 2019
In a visit to Moscow that occurred prior to the Israeli elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a gift from Russian President Vladimir Putin: the remains of fallen Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel. Baumel, who had been missing in action since the first war in Lebanon in 1982, has finally been laid to rest in Jerusalem. His father, Yona Baumel, dedicated his life to discovering what happened to his youngest son until his passing 10 years ago. Now, 37 years after that fateful day in Lebanon, that journey has come to an end.
In 1970, Yona and his wife Miriam Baumel immigrated to the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Motzkin from Brooklyn with their three children, Shimon, Osna and Zachary. Like so many today, Zachary Baumel joined the Hesder Yeshiva Har Etzion so he could continue learning Torah while completing his Israeli military service. As his sister, Osna, said at the funeral last week, “[T]he soil is hugging you tightly because there is nothing but love between the son who gave everything for this land and the land itself.” Zachary was slated to attend Hebrew University after he was discharged.
Zachary was completing his military service as a tank commander when he was called up to the war in Lebanon. On June 11, 1982, outside the village of Sultan Yacoub, the Israeli tank division was attacked, killing 30 soldiers. Three soldiers, Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, were classified as missing in action. Feldman and Katz are still missing.
Since the battle that claimed his son, Yona Baumel traveled the world, followed leads and lobbied governments for information. He helped found “The International Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers,” a group dedicated to ensuring that these soldiers were not forgotten. Rumors dogged the Baumel family of Zachary’s fate. “Baumel Is Alive” was a phrase that littered international media for decades. In 1983, the head of the East-West Security Council, John Mroz, claimed he heard it from a Palestinian source. In 1984, Stuart Young of the BBC reported it. 1985, 1987, 1988, 1991, 1992 all had reports, eyewitnesses, and intelligence sources claiming it. In 1993, Yasser Arafat delivered half of Baumel’s dog tags, promising more information was coming ahead of the Oslo Accords. The information never came. In 2006, Yona received information from sources he cultivated in Syria that his son was alive. The Baumels sued the Syrian government in U.S. courts for more information, to no avail.
His efforts bore some legislative fruit in the United States. The “Middle East Peace Facilitation Act of 1995” contained a clause that made notifying the United States of missing American nationals held by the PLO or its faction a condition to receiving U.S. aid. At the time, the only person that would have applied to was Zachary Baumel. In 1999, after two years of lobbying, the United States Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed into law H.R. 1175, “A Bill to Locate and Secure the Release of Zachary Baumel, a U.S. Citizen and other Israelis Missing in Action.” In 2003, the IDF attempted to declare Zachary Baumel dead, but Yona successfully convinced them otherwise. He wrote scathing rebukes of the Israeli government in the Jerusalem Post in both 2003 and 2006, claiming they forgot about his son. In 2009, Yona Baumel passed away at the age of 81, never finding out what happened.
Perhaps due to his efforts, or because a week hasn’t passed since 1982 that the name “Zechariah Ben Miriam Baumel” wasn’t said throughout the Jewish community on Shabbat, the missing soldier was never forgotten. Since 2015, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been meeting frequently with President Putin, approximately four times a year publicly. Around the time the Obama administration was negotiating the Iran deal and Bibi came to Washington to speak in front a joint session of Congress, the longtime Israeli PM realized that the United States’ interest in the Middle East was waning after the prolonged military engagements in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. In 2017, Bibi put his new friendship to the test. As he said to Putin after receiving the remains of Zachary Baumel, “Two years ago, I asked you to help us find the bodies of missing Israeli soldiers and you responded in the affirmative. I want to thank you, my friend, for what you have done.” Vladimir Putin is not known for his altruism, so this may have been a ploy to have a seat at the table when the Trump administration reveals its much-touted plan for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (which is supposed to arrive shortly after the Israeli elections). Regardless, one of Israel’s lost sons has been returned.
The return and burial of Zachary Baumel was a comfort to his remaining family: his mother, brother and sister. As Prime Minister Netanyahu eulogized, “On this day we remember the late Yona and his love for Zachary… His pain, his longing, his faith, his tireless devotion to bring Zachary home. How unfortunate that you’re not here with us to see the return of your beloved son.” While it was truly tragic that Yona Baumel had to spend the final three decades of his life searching for his son, in a bittersweet moment they can now both rest in peace.
By Moshe Hill