Exactly 30 years ago, during the night between the 10th and 11th of June, 1982 (the 20th of Sivan – a date commemorating other historical Jewish tragedies), the IDF fought Syrian forces in the Battle of Sultan Yacoub, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Considered one of Israel’s worst failures in the First Lebanon War, 30 Israeli soldiers were killed and another three went missing. Eyewitnesses testified that three Israeli soldiers were paraded through Damascus several days after the battle, but the trail begins to run cold after that, although there were indications in 1993, 2000, and possibly even 2005 that at least some of the missing Israeli soldiers were still alive. Perhaps, as the Syrian regime – long suspected of holding the soldiers – continues to crumble, we will finally get some definitive answers.
It has been 30 years, or 10,958 days, that their families – two of the three, Yehuda Katz and Tzvi Feldman, were/are children of Holocaust survivors – have been in the dark about the fate of their sons and brothers. Brooklyn-born Zachary Baumel’s father passed away in 2009, having dedicated the last 27 years of his life to bringing his son home by cultivating contacts in enemy states, suing governments, and organizing campaigns, but ultimately suffering immense frustration.
When I studied at the Kerem B’Yavneh yeshiva in the early 1990s, Yehuda Katz’s presence was still felt there. He had been an outstanding student in its Hesder program, combining yeshiva study with army service. Stories about him were still told – how he was the star student of his class and a natural leader, how he literally departed for the front lines straight from the Beit Midrash (study hall), and how on the night before his capture, he led his anxious fellow soldiers, religious and secular alike, in studying Maimonides’s laws of proper conduct for a Jewish soldier. He still had a bed in the yeshiva more than a decade after his capture, and like some mirror-image of Babe Ruth’s locker, his personal effects were still in his closet there; the sense in the yeshiva was that he might yet return, and when he does, he will certainly come back to yeshiva. Even now, the yeshiva’s website keeps Yehuda’s story on a page separate from the stories of its fallen soldiers, as if to express the hope that perhaps, though by know he would be in his 50s, there is a chance that he is still alive.
The missing soldiers are remembered elsewhere as well. Baumel’s alma mater, Yeshivat Har Etzion, commemorated this sombre anniversary last week. In synagogues throughout the world, a special prayer is recited each Shabbat for missing and captured Israeli soldiers, and the three who went missing at Sultan Yacoub are often mentioned by name. And yet, for some reason – and there is really no hypothesis that reflects well on this country – Yehuda, Tzvi, and Zachary never gained the public support that Ron Arad or Gilad Shalit did.
There are very few people who still think that any of these three soldiers are coming back alive, although perhaps it is not too late for their families to gain some sort of closure. The story of Yehuda, Tzvi, and Zachary deserves Israel’s attention on the anniversary of their disappearance – not only because we have no other way to remember them, but because we also need to remember that we failed them.