NEW YORK, Jan. 25 (JTA) — The idea to campaign for three Israeli soldiers being held hostage by Hezbollah blossomed out of a meeting in November with the families of the hostages.
“In a very poignant way, they asked not to be forgotten,” said Steven Nasatir, the president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
So the Chicago federation launched a blue-ribbon campaign, modeled after the yellow ribbons Americans wore in the late 1970s to raise awareness of the Americans held hostage in Iran after the Islamic Revolution.
The ribbons are attached to a piece of cardboard with photos of the three soldiers, as well as the names of four other soldiers missing in action since the 1980s and an Israeli businessman abducted by Hezbollah in October.
Also provided is information on how to contact the United States government, the United Nations and the Red Cross to urge them to press for the hostages’ release.
Jewish federations across North America have joined the campaign, and hundreds of thousands of the ribbons have been distributed in the Jewish community.
Some 50,000 ribbons were sent out in Chicago alone.
“It’s a way of showing the families that the worldwide Jewish mishpocha,”or family, “cares about this and will not forget their boys,” Nasatir said.
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization, shipped the ribbons to all members of the last Congress, and is preparing to send them to the current members.
The ribbons make “tangible the feelings of concern that we all have for the soldiers who are being held. It’s a constant reminder,” said Martin Raffel, the associate executive vice chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
A congressional letter with bipartisan support is being sent to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, asking the new administration to become “deeply involved” in working to free the soldiers, Raffel said.
The kidnapped Israelis also were mentioned at a rally at the United Jewish Communities’ General Assembly in November. A demonstration to raise public awareness on their behalf was staged in Israel in December.
Several Israelis have been missing for years. The most famous is air force navigator Ron Arad, who was captured by Shi’ite gunmen when his plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986. He was sold to another Muslim group in Iran, and has since disappeared.
Three soldiers — Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz — have been missing since a 1982 tank battle in Lebanon.
The Shi’ite Muslim militia Hezbollah abducted soldiers Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Souad while they were patrolling Israel’s northern border with Lebanon on Oct. 7.
Several weeks later they abducted Elhanan Tannenbaum, an Israeli businessman who they lured to Lebanon. Like most Israeli men, Tannenbaum serves periodically in the reserves, and Hezbollah sought to portray its operation as the capture of a high-ranking Israeli officer.
Despite reports several weeks ago that a prisoner swap would be conducted, the men remain in captivity, and details of their condition have not been released.
The Red Cross reportedly was involved in these negotiations, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has criticized the kidnappers for their actions.
The United Nations, which has criticized Israel several times for its behavior during the most recent outbreak of Palestinian violence, has not passed any resolutions about the kidnapping of the Israelis.
The blue-ribbon campaign is part of the public relations war around the current violence, Nasatir said, but it’s also a humanitarian effort.
“We’re dealing with a very human story,” he said. “When you meet with these parents and you shake their hands and look into their eyes, you can’t help but be very sad and empathic at their grieving.”