Israel may be out of Lebanon, but some Israelis, unfortunately, are not.
On a fateful night in June 1982, a battalion of young Israeli soldiers there suddenly found itself in the middle of a heavily fortified Syrian encampment. Twenty-one Israeli soldiers were killed and three were captured. The captives were paraded through Damascus the next day and have not been seen since.
When other children ask Danny Eisen's 4-year-old daughter what her father does, she says that Daddy is a prisoner of war. Not precisely true. He is often away from home, to be sure, and as a result of war. But what keeps him "captive" is his work on behalf of true captives. When you're a little girl, it's hard to tell the difference. Only when you're older do you consider him a hero.
At 41, Danny Eisen hardly looks the part of an international activist. Slightly built, with a beard, glasses, wavy hair and long sidelocks tucked behind his ears, the Toronto-born Orthodox Jew seems more like a science teacher than the intrepid strategist behind a world-wide, grass-roots coalition whose diplomatic initiatives have affected American foreign policy and placed Israeli hostages on the international agenda. Except for the forceful passion in his voice when he speaks about his cause, one would never guess that he travels around the world to meet with heads of state, intelligence operatives, terrorists and anyone else who might conceivably play some role in locating and bringing home three Israeli soldiers missing now for 18 years.
There isn't a day that goes by that Eisen doesn't think about the missing men; he even dreams about them.
As it happened, the three soldiers captured in Lebanon - Zachary Baumel, Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz - were part of a battalion with a high proportion of Orthodox soldiers. When Eisen recently addressed a delegation of Christian clergy, the listeners sat open-mouthed as they heard how, when it became clear that the battle was hopeless, the soldiers discussed complex halachic questions regarding ethics in battle and captivity, including the Jewish legal position on suicide in the face of torture.
Since the Syrians had broken their codes and were listening in, the men improvised an ad hoc code using an ancient system of Jewish numerology, which the soldiers with yeshiva training deciphered for the others. Yehudah Katz drew on his extensive knowledge of Jewish legal and ethical writings, and addressed his fellow soldiers on the proper ethical and emotional qualities demanded by Jewish law of a Jewish soldier. Witnesses say he managed to strengthen the resolve and calm the fears of his fellow soldiers, many of whom had never before experienced battle.
Eisen has also taken up the cause of another missing soldier, Ron Arad, who was captured after bailing out of his crippled plane over Southern Lebanon. Over the years there has been a steady flow of information indicating that some of the Israelis are still alive and being held hostage by Syrian and Iranian operatives. Eisen works relentlessly to keep the issue of the soldiers' fates "high profile" in the media and on the agenda of Western governments and Israel. In this way, he has helped ensure that the men are not forgotten, and that those responsible for their fate are held accountable.
Initially, Eisen, an Orthodox rabbinic scholar, had simply wanted to help the missing Jews, and bring about closure for the families. In the words of the mother of one of the missing men, "Imagine not knowing whether your son is dead or alive. Imagine the fear that you'll eventually find out that he was alive and you hadn't done everything in your power to rescue him."
With time, however, he came to realize that an even larger ideal hovered in the background. Throughout their history, Jews have always held that the value of a life cannot be defined by political considerations. The Talmud places tremendous emphasis on the obligation to redeem captives, and Jews have always gone to extraordinary lengths to do so. Today, says Eisen, with the yawning divisions - religious, political, ideological - in the Jewish people, the sense of responsibility to Jewish captives may be one of the last fundamental principles capable of uniting all Jews. That has come to the forefront as Jews in Iran stand before a kangaroo court, and, Eisen maintains, it is evident in the broad support he has received from Jews of all stripes in his effort to find and free Israeli captives.
At the onset of the Oslo peace process in 1993, there was increased opportunity for dialogue between Israel and the Arab states, and the imminent return of the missing soldiers seemed a reasonable possibility. To Eisen's dismay, though, the issue of the captured soldiers was never once mentioned publicly by Israeli officials. That fact was the midwife of the International Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers, Eisen's organization. He was reluctant to leave his rabbinical studies, but expected the position to be only temporary, just until the plight of the missing soldiers was resolved.
Seven years later, the group's Jerusalem headquarters still has a look of impermanence. There is hardly any furniture, just tables, phones, fax and copy machines, and stacks of papers, files, and promotional material.
Support for the effort comes from across the political and religious spectrums, and from around the world.
"The success of the organization shows that this is still a core value that can speak to people," says Eisen. "We have wealthy donors and people going door to door in Meah Shearim, a neighborhood of mostly poorer, very religious Jews. People give whatever they can."
Despite their broad-based support, most of the money raised is used in the lobbying effort, for travel, telephone and advertising. Consequently, there is only a small, dedicated staff. They include Raye Rakefet, a shy, unpretentious woman who works out of her home in Har Nof, a Jerusalem suburb. Despite her unassuming demeanor, or perhaps because of it, she is a remarkable lobbyist. During an 8-month period last year, Raye placed more than 8,000 phone calls in an effort to overcome opposition and pass an ambitious bill through the US Congress. Simultaneously, Eisen accompanied the elderly Baumels for a twenty-five week effort to drum up support across the United States.
The Congressional bill the group helped promote – "Legislation to Locate and Secure the Release of Zachary Baumel, an American Citizen, and Other Israelis Missing in Action" - links American aid to Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority and other governments in the region to their cooperation in locating and returning the missing men. In August, 1999, it passed unanimously in both houses of Congress and was subsequently signed into law by President Clinton.
Its passage and enactment represented a startling coup by any standard. Foreign policy is not generally codified in legislation, the bill moved with unusual speed and there was significant opposition to overcome. Eisen doesn 't believe in luck, but neither does he believe it was just his group's hard work. Again he stresses the unifying power of the issue.
"These four missing men are a binding force in world Jewry today. There is almost no chasm this issue can't cross. And that's a tremendous source of merit for them."
Eisen is now pushing for similar legislation in Great Britain and other Western countries. Will these legislative initiatives put an end to the hostage taking that has plagued the Middle East over the past two decades? Eisen is skeptical.
"Kidnapping soldiers is now replacing terrorism as a primary strategic tool of the Arab rejectionists. It's better for p.r., and it's cheaper."
Eisen says his wife, Sarah Malka, is his major source of encouragement when the obstacles seem almost too formidable. She acknowledges that his absences are hard on their three children, but believes this is mitigated by the benefits of seeing in their father a model of conviction, someone willing to go to extraordinary lengths to help others in need. She herself was brought up with such a model, and speaks with pride of her great-grandfather, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Birnbaum, whose monumental efforts to preserve both Jewish lives and Jewish values take up several pages in the Encylopedia Judaica.
For his part, Eisen hopes his task will soon be done, and that he will be able to be home more often like other fathers. He looks forward, too, to when he'll have more time to engage his passion for study. His home is lined with hundreds of Jewish texts.
"When I got involved with this, no one imagined that this issue would drag on for so long. I've missed years of Torah study", he says. "Even though I know it was the right thing to do, it has still left a big hole."
"And that is a loss," he adds sadly, "that can never be replaced."
When the captured men are returned home, he says wistfully, his first priorities will be to spend a lot more time with his studies and his family.
THE INTERNATIONAL COALITION FOR MISSING ISRAELI SOLDIERS can be contacted at P.O. Box 32380, Jerusalem 91233 Israel (972-2-623-6083) [email protected]
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Adam Jessel is a research consultant living in Israel.]