A few weeks ago, three Israeli friends and I were planning a trip to Rome, but none of them had passports. When they finally excitedly received them in the mail, we all sat down to compare. Looking at my passport, my friend, Noy, turned to me and said, “What I would do for an American passport!” At first I sarcastically suggested that she must be jealous of the pretty pictures of landscapes from around the country that U.S. passports have on each page. When I asked what she meant, she said, “It must be nice to have the United States of America behind you.”
Shortly after that conversation, the news broke. Three Israeli teenagers, Naftali Frenkel (16), Gil-Ad Shaer (16), and Eyal Yifrah (19), were kidnapped by Hamas while trying to catch a ride home after school. The Israeli people reacted immediately, coming together to pray and to sing and to comfort one another. The boys’ faces were everywhere, on signs above shops, on buses, on the news. The Israeli government immediately tried to find them, bring them home safely, and crack down on the terrorist network in Judea and Samaria that was responsible for this kidnapping not of soldiers, but of children, on their way home from school.
I couldn’t help but think: How would the U.S. react if this happened to one of our own? I then found out that Naftali Frenkel was a dual citizen of Israel and the United States. The U.S. State Department’s bureau of consular affairs outlines the embassy’s responsibilities and role in the case of a missing person abroad: As concerned relatives call in, consular officers use the information provided by the family or friends of a missing person to locate the individual. We check with local authorities in the foreign country for any report of a U.S. citizen hospitalized, arrested, or otherwise unable to communicate with those looking for them. Depending on the circumstances, consular officers may personally search hotels, airports, hospitals, or even prisons. The qualifier “depending on the circumstances” caught and held my attention due to its ambiguity. What, exactly, did it mean?
Day after day passed with no substantial news. Condemnation of the kidnapping came from across the globe, including a statement on June 15 from the U.S. State Department describing the kidnappings as a “despicable terrorist act” and calling for the boys’ safe return home. Yet despite the statement on behalf of his administration, for 18 days President Barack Obama personally remained silent. When Naftali’s mother pleaded before the U.N. for help finding her son, Obama remained silent. Not until after the bodies of the boys were found shot point blank and dumped in a field did the president himself issue a statement condemning the murder of these boys. Clearly, finding Naftali Frenkel alive wasn’t one of his priorities.
There is a long history of presidential involvement in the return of citizens captured overseas. When it comes to presidential values, their actions speak louder than words. In 1973, a terrorist group called the Black September Organization took ten diplomats hostage when they attacked the Saudi Embassy in Khartoum. Nixon refused to cave to their demands, and the three Western diplomats were killed. During the Iranian Hostage Crisis, hostages were held for 444 days while Jimmy Carter was president. Carter’s advisor and biographer Peter Bourne has said, “Because people felt that Carter had not been tough enough in foreign policy, this kind of symbolized for them that some bunch of students could seize American diplomatic officials and hold them prisoner and thumb their nose at the United States.” Just minutes after Reagan was sworn into office, the hostages were released, and it was in fact a major part of his political campaign platform. In an April 2002 speech, President George W. Bush said: “No nation can negotiate with terrorists, for there is no way to make peace with those whose only goal is death.” However, he was willing to pay $300,000 for the return of Martin and Gracia Burnham, who were Christian missionaries in the Philippines.
Most recently, Obama exchanged Afghan detainees for the release of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. Bergdahl was a soldier, engaged in warfare, who had training to defend himself in such a horrible situation. Naftali Frenkel was an innocent student, making his way home from school. Michelle Obama also chose to involve herself with the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, which called for the return of kidnapped girls who are non-citizens. As a United States citizen, did Naftali’s kidnapping not deserve even one public statement from the president?
Each president’s actions demonstrate his priorities and values for the safety of citizens abroad. This year, I spent the Fourth of July overseas. There were no fireworks or barbeques. Instead, summer festivals are shut down in memoriam of Naftali, Eyal and Gil-ad. Their murders resonate deeply with me because they were the same age as my brother, and this could have happened to anyone. This has been my first Fourth of July that was both celebratory and mournful, but I hope I can celebrate future Independence Days with more confidence that my government will prioritize the safe return of all kidnapped U.S. citizens, and not only some, “depending on the circumstances.”