Thirty-Seven years after he was killed in the Battle of Sultan Yaaqub, in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, the remains of Israeli-American Staff Sergeant Zachary Baumel were returned to Israel and he was buried yesterday, 4 April, 2019, on Mt. Herzl, in Jerusalem.
Upon reading of the events of the First Lebanon War back in 1982, I learned that Zachary Baumel, along with Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman, was reported missing in action. It was a name, connected to an event, that was connected to a distant place, a place that was pulling at my heart strings. Year after year, from childhood on, the words “Next Year in Jerusalem” took on greater meaning. Three years following that war, after leaving family, friends and business in the U.S. and crossing the Big Muddy to this tiny stretch of desert sand, a different reality took hold in my life. I related to every soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) as a member of my family. Every loss was a personal loss. There didn’t seem to be enough tears for all of them. And I wasn’t alone. Israel does not allow the nation to forget those whose have been captured, or were reported missing in action. The names of Baumel, Katz and Feldman were mentioned in many different settings. They were young men, who were reported as missing while defending the country. Their families longed for their return, praying, hoping and yearning to see their loved ones again, to embrace them, to weep for joy over their return. The years have passed, thirty-seven of them, and along with them, some of the members of the families of those who were missing in action.
Israel is committed to bringing all of its sons home. Yaron Blum, special negotiator for hostages and prisoners of war at the Office of the Prime Minister, and formerly a senior official with the Shin Bet security agency, said that this commitment is “not a cliché and not a statement that has something to do with the elections. This is a tremendous commitment; we must act tirelessly to bring the captives and the missing home.”
Many attempts had been made since 1982 to locate Baumel’s remains. According to Blum, “[Over] the years, we perfected the intelligence, until we succeeded in pointing, according to the coordinates, [to the spot] where according to assessments, the remains were located…[But this] would not have happened without the Prime Minister’s special relationship with [Russian President Vladmir] Putin. No less important is everyone’s success in putting their ego aside and working together to get results.” He emphasized that the success in bringing Baumel’s remains to Israel for burial proved that “it’s never too late. . . the time aspect is of significance, but we dod not abandon these issues, even if many years have passed” and that efforts continue to return all of the MIAs from all of Israel’s wars and conflicts. The complete interview of Yaron Blum to Israel Hayom can be seen here.
The funeral service drew thousands from every walk of life, even some who had not yet been born when Zachary Baumel went missing in action. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin were among the many who delivered eulogies and speeches. But, the most moving eulogy was that of Zachary’s sister, Osna Haberman, who stated, in part:
“I thought of what I would do here in this place. Even hugging is impossible. So I thought of turning to the ground and asking the land to embrace him, to hold him tight. And a few minutes later I realized I don’t need to ask. There is no need to ask. The land is hugging tightly. And why? Because there is absolute love between the son who gave everything for the land and the land itself, there is a complete union here, you are together now….
“***I pray for the families who have lived apart from their loved ones for so many years, some more and some less. I pray that there will be a union, that they will come together in one way or another. You’ll be together someday, I’m praying for it.
“This is the place where we will pour out our prayers, because this is a holy place. The family asks from this place to give abundant thanks first of all to the Master of the Universe. The life you gave us every day, and the favor that is greater than the pain. The Sages say that favor in the world is five hundred times more than disfavor. There are times when it is hard to see it, there are times when it is easier. Let us see it every day. Thank you for showing us favor every day.
“I would like to say thank you to the Prime Minister that you . . . personally handled the matter. And heartfelt thanks from the family. I want to say thank you to all the security forces, you do not know how many there are, until you get home together, everyone who worked and did will come and get his reward. Thanks from the family personally. I can not come and tell everyone because you are so many.
“Thanks to the people of Israel who held us, that we could be here today after thirty-seven years. Without you, and you know who you are, everyone who prayed, who wrote, who thought, everyone who hoped in the heart, because of you we are here. Thanks to the people of Israel for this day.
“Now I want to turn to my dear brother, Zechariah, that we grew up together. A young man so modest, so humble, so unselfish. He would say what are we doing here today, what is happening here, he would not understand. And I say to him this time, yes, for you, particularly because you gave everything. You were dressed with the Spirit of God when you were recruited. Until then you were a mischievous, lighthearted, cute guy, and from the day that the army touched you, suddenly a different spirit dressed on you. I did not understand who this boy was, like [he was] someone else. And I hear stories about the performance and the connection and the giving and I say I do not know who about whom they are speaking here, because it’s you, yes, it’s you, too, Everyone knows something else.
“I am saying goodbye for myself, I can not say good-bye for anyone. . .My prayers are that all the POWs and MIAs will come to unite with their families. . .
“We are parting from you today, I am releasing you to the land, because the land is very, very good. Rest in peace, my dear brother. . . We are in a difficult time and I think that all of our prayers need to be lifted on high.”
Israel’s President, Reuven (Ruby) Rivlin, added these words:
“Zachary, 37 years ago, a few days before the battle in which you fell, you wrote to your parents: ‘Don’t worry, everything is OK, but it looks like I won’t be coming home soon’. Thirty-seven years have passed since then, but today you returned home. You returned to the soil of our homeland, to Jerusalem. . . Look around, Zachary, if you could see your friends, your officers – some of them already have grandchildren, but we are interning you today as a young warrior, only 22 years old. . . Today is a day that the State of Israel fulfils its oath to out soldiers, our sons and our daughters. Today we are able to unanimously testify that we do everything, even the unthinkable and the unbelieving in order to fulfil our oaths to return our sons who did not return home from battle. Today, we are able to say with full faith and humility to our soldiers, in the past in the present and in the future, we did not forsake and we will not forsake this holy mission until all of our sons who fell in the defense of this nation and land will return home.”
Zachary Baumel’s body was one of several bodies brought to Israel this week as part of Operation Zemer Nugeh (Sad Song). In Israel, they hoped that the bodies of the three missing soldiers – including Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman – were among those who were located. But, the forensic institute examination identified only Baumel, and the three were not buried together.
Some have tried to accuse Prime Minister Netanyahu of timing the return of the remains of Zachary Baumel just before the elections, scheduled for 9th April. While the timing may be fortuitous, it is almost insulting to say that it was a move designed to influence the elections. This was an ongoing operation that required the cooperative efforts of many different government departments, including the personal involvement of P.M. Netanyahu, who used his relationship with Russian President, Vladimir Putin, to recover Zachary’s remains.
The IDF has a special unit, known as “EITAN”, that is tasked with finding all soldiers who were captured or reported as missing, with some 95 files still open from 1948 to the present. It is manned by about 50 reservists, who are called up for a few weeks each year, who continue the research for those who are still unaccounted for. They come from different walks of life and devote their entire reserve time to researching the files of those who are missing. They don’t give up. It is part of the commitment of the IDF to bring all of its sons home, no matter how long it may take. Like so many who have suffered trauma of one sort of another, they need closure. New sets of eyes look on old, still-open files, hoping to find something that may have been overlooked. More on the EITAN unit can be seen here.
Baumel’s first name, Zachary, is Zechariah in Hebrew. It comprises the two words: “zachar” and “Yah”. Put together, zachar-yah (or Zechariah) means “God remembered”. God remembered Zachary Baumel and brought his remains home to the land. May his memory be blessed (yehi zicharono baruch). May God strengthen the hands of those who serve day and night to protect us from our enemies. May He grant wisdom and unity of decision to the leaders of the IDF and may He guard the going out and coming in of every one of our sons and daughters in uniform, that they will go out in peace and return in peace.
Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are My servant; I have formed you, you are my servant, O Israel, you will not be forgotten by Me. (Isaiah 44:21).
Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you (Isaiah 54:15).
Bless, be blessed and be a blessing.