The return of Israel Defense Forces Sgt. 1st Class Zachary Baumel’s body for proper burial in Israel 37 years after his death was a poignant piece of positive news last week.
The Brooklyn-born tank commander was one of 21 Israeli soldiers killed in the Battle of Sultan Yacoub between Israel and Syria that took place in the Bekaa Valley during the First Lebanon War in June 1982. (Thirty other Israeli soldiers were injured.) Baumel was one of three casualties of that battle whose remains were never found.
A two-year search called Operation Bittersweet Song that Israel conducted with Russian assistance led to the recovery of Baumel’s remains, which were flown to Israel via El Al and positively identified. The body was laid to rest April 4 in Jerusalem in Mount Herzl Military Cemetery.
“The IDF has undertaken significant intelligence and operational efforts to find the remains and bring them back,” IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said. “Our efforts to locate the other missing-in-action soldiers continue.”
Reaching closure on the sad, and near-forgotten, Baumel story, and the respectful return of his remains has generated an emotional reaction within Jewish communities and among people of goodwill around the world. But nowhere is the reaction more intense and heartfelt than in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “one of the most moving moments in all my years as prime minister” as well as a “repayment of a moral debt to the fallen soldiers of the IDF, a repayment of a moral debt to their families.”
The Baumel story is a reminder of what the state of Israel and its people have tragically lost in defense of their existence. And it is a testament to the unending commitment the IDF has to its soldiers and to the families of those brave military men and women who risk everything to serve and to defend the Jewish homeland. Members of the IDF know that they are respected and cherished by their government, and that they will be defended and protected by their government. They also know that the commitment to them will not end even if they are captured, injured or killed – or, like Baumel, missing in action for decades. That reality is an inspiring example of dedication, commitment and respect, and is clearly a promise that will not be broken.
While the return of Baumel’s remains has generated much interest and praise for the complex effort that made it possible, we (and, we are sure, IDF), can’t help but remember Sgt. Yehuda Katz and Sgt. Tzvika Feldman, who were involved in the same tank battle as Baumel, and whose fates are still unknown. We pray their whereabouts will be resolved soon, with the dignity and honor they deserve. JN