Every generation of Israelis that goes to war produces parents who are transformed into leaders of movements demanding news on the fate of missing sons kidnapped or killed in battle — and to have their remains returned home.
In the 1980s and ’90s, the most visible face and Brooklyn-accented voice of parents of missing soldiers was that of a determined New York native: Yona Baumel, the father of Zachary Baumel, one of the soldiers who went missing in the battle of Sultan Yaaqub in 1982 during the first Lebanon war.
On Wednesday, the Israeli military announced that, 37 years on, Zachary Baumel’s body has finally been returned to Israel.
Yona Baumel, who immigrated to Jerusalem from the United States in 1970 together with his wife Miriam and their children, participated in countless protests and demonstrations — and even a short hunger strike — to draw attention to his cause and was publicly critical of the Israel Defense Forces’ conduct toward his family.
Over the years, the Baumels lost faith in the ability of the Israeli government and its vaunted intelligence services to locate his son, learn about his fate or have his body repatriated. They and the families of other soldiers missing in the same battle took the task upon themselves.
They traveled the world, following up every possible lead, interviewing hundreds of people and collecting all possible information about their sons’ fates, even applying international pressure. The group of parents and their supporters called themselves the International Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers.
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In the United States, their lobbying efforts resulted in the passage of “A Bill to Locate and Secure the Release of Zachary Baumel, an American Citizen and Other Israelis Missing in Action," which then-President Bill Clinton signed into law on November 8, 1999. The law directed the State Department to raise the issue of the Israeli MIAs on “an urgent basis” with Arab governments in the region, linking U.S. economic assistance to those governments to their cooperation.
After his years of effort to locate his son proved fruitless and frustrated by growing evidence that the Israeli authorities had mishandled the missing soldiers’ case, Yona Baumel accused commanders and the country's leaders of whitewashing and heartlessness.
“Personally, I feel let down and betrayed by members of the army and the government,” Yona Baumel wrote in the Jerusalem Post in 2006. “You can’t imagine what it’s like to wake up in the middle of the night thinking about your kidnapped son. All the time, when you’re not thinking about something else, you are thinking about your son.”
Baumel lived until the age of 81 and his two older children produced seven grandchildren. But he never abandoned the struggle to find his youngest son. When Yona Baumel died in 2009, one of his granddaughters, Shifi Haberman, said that two things had kept him alive until that point: “The belief in God and the hope of seeing his son again, or at least knowing what happened to him.”