ELKINS PARK, Pa. (AP) — For the 26 months that Josh Fattal was held captive in Iran, his mother and brother were ever-present voices calling for his release. But his father, Jacob Fattal, never said a word.
It’s now clear why: The family feared that their Jewish faith — and Jacob Fattal’s ties to Israel — could make Josh’s unbearable situation worse because of Iran’s hard line against Israel.
Jacob Fattal is an Iraqi-born Jew who lived in Israel before moving to the United States and raising a family, according to reports in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and the Philadelphia-based Jewish Exponent.
In 2009, his son Josh Fattal was hiking with friends Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd in Iraq’s relatively peaceful Kurdish region when they were detained by Iranian authorities. The trio says they got lost and accidentally crossed into Iran, but authorities in Tehran charged them with spying.
Shourd was released about a year later. Fattal and Bauer, both 29, spent more than two years in Evin prison before being freed last week under a $1 million bail deal.
“We’re very happy; it’s the greatest gift we could have dreamed of receiving for Rosh Hashanah,” Jacob Fattal told Haaretz on Monday, a few days ahead of the Jewish New Year. “The problem was their being American, not Jewish. The Iranians used them as a political weapon for two years.”
No one answered the door Tuesday at the Fattals’ home in Elkins Park, a heavily Jewish suburb of Philadelphia where Josh and his brother Alex grew up. A message left for Jacob Fattal at his office was not immediately returned.
Aviva Daniel and Yael Nis, Josh Fattal’s aunts in Israel, told Israel’s Channel 2 on Tuesday that they only told a few people in Israel about Fattal’s Israeli connection — and swore them to secrecy.
“I believe the (Israeli) media knew, and cooperated, and kept it a secret,” said Nis. “We are really thankful for that.”
Nis asked various synagogues in Israel to include Fattal’s name in their regular prayers on behalf of people needing health and safety — without saying why.
“We prayed and our prayers were answered,” said Nis. “It is a miracle from God.”
Daniel said Fattal had visited Israel “a few times” over the past few years for family occasions. He speaks only a few words of Hebrew, Daniel added.
Ian Lustick, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in Middle East politics, said it’s likely that both the Fattal family and the Iranians downplayed Fattal’s faith throughout the detention in order to leave the door open for a possible resolution.
While the family clearly made attempts to keep his faith out of the public eye, Lustick said, the Iranians probably knew that at least one of the detained hikers was Jewish but kept it quiet. If the family had trumpeted the fact that Fattal was Jewish, he said, it would been much more difficult to resolve the standoff.
“There was a kind of objective alliance between people in this country who didn’t talk about it publicly … and the Iranians also downplayed it,” Lustick said. “Really what happened was there was a general desire to find a way out.”
He added, “If you didn’t have officials in Iran who had always been keeping that information out of the news, then pretending to keep the secret in the United States wouldn’t have worked.”
Elliot Holin, rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami around the corner from the Fattals’ home, said Tuesday that the extended Jewish community in the Philadelphia area was aware of the delicate faith issue.
Though the Fattals belonged to another synagogue, Holin said, the hikers’ names were mentioned each week in Kol Ami’s Sabbath prayers for the past two years. When news of their release came, a member of the synagogue blew the horn known as the shofar during last Friday’s services.
Worshippers clearly felt an “incredible sense of relief and gratitude,” said Holin.
“You could see tears in people’s eyes,” he said.
Shourd has been living in Oakland, Calif., since her release. Bauer, who grew up in Onamia, Minn., proposed marriage to her while they were in prison.
(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)