I was remembering last week, following the 4th of July, an experience of many years ago. It was 1976, the year of the American Bicentennial, but I was actually in Israel on a summer Ulpan program sponsored by the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education. I was thrilled to be in Israel, of course, as a 15-year-old kid on an adventure away from home for the first time. Our program was based for the summer at a kfar no’ar, a youth village called Meir Shfeyah in the north of Israel near Zichron Ya’akov, where we were learning Hebrew and working in the fields and barns. It was an extraordinary experience, but I was also a little bummed to be missing out on all the festivities at home for the 200th anniversary of the founding of America.
They arranged for the American kids on Ulpan who wanted to watch the majestic tall ships parade and fireworks on the only television available at Meir Shefeyah, a small black-and-white screen TV. And we were watching it when something amazing happened.
The other big news story in Israel that summer of ‘76, besides the American bicentennial, was the hijacking of an Air France jet by Palestinian terrorists to Entebbe, Uganda. About 250 people were on board the flight from Tel Aviv, which stopped in Athens on the way to its final destination of Paris. Instead, in Athens, two Palestinian terrorists, joined by two German revolutionary cell terrorists, boarded the flight. Once aloft they redirected the plane to Idi Amin’s Uganda.
The story played out in the daily news: the Israeli and other Jewish passengers were separated out by the terrorists while the non-Jewish passengers were released. The terrorists wanted Israel to free Palestinian terrorists held for earlier atrocities, plus other Palestinian terrorists imprisoned for murders in other countries. They threatened to kill all the Jewish passengers if their demands were not met. Ugandan dictator Idi Amin supported the terrorists, including deploying his air force and army to assist them.
The drama built as the terrorist’s deadline approached. What would happen in the heart of Africa to the Israelis and other Jews held at gunpoint at the Entebbe airport?
That night, the 4th of July 1976, as we watched the bicentennial broadcast on that little TV, we suddenly heard shouts and cheers coming from the homes of the Israelis in Meir Shefeyah. That was followed by singing and more shouting and cheering. What was going on?
We went out to the courtyard of our youth village and got word: Israeli commandos had secretly been flown all the way to Uganda and in a stunning operation freed the hostages and flown them back to Israel. The euphoria in Meir Shefeyah was obvious: the Israelis, including our counselors and group leaders, were by and large a reserved group compared to us boisterous American teens. But not that night: it was a real celebration of this amazing rescue. The commander of the Sayeret Matkal soldiers who freed the hostages, Yonatan Netanyahu, had been killed in the operation, and three of the hostages were also killed in the raid—but over 100 were freed and brought to safety.
The pride the Israelis felt was overwhelmingly evident. But we American Jewish kids were almost as excited. What a remarkable combination of events, that this fabulous rescue happened on the 200th anniversary of our own nation. There was something so Israeli about that rescue: it looked impossible, it took incredible chutzpah, and it was only activated when it became clear that diplomatic efforts were not going to free the hostages. And the actual operation, the capture of the airport and the freeing of the Jews from their Palestinian captors, took a grand total of 53 minutes. The euphoria among the Israelis in our little youth village and the surrounding area lasted for weeks. And it was contagious. To some degree, we absorbed the Israeli enthusiasm and joy at this miraculous rescue.
I think it may have been at that point that I fully became a lover of Israel. The newspaper picture of the heroic young commandos who rescued the hostages reinforced that: they looked like teenagers, just a few years older than we were, nonchalantly standing around the Mercedes they used to impersonate Idi Amin’s auto. They all had that very serious Israeli look, in contrast to our easy, meaningless American smiles. They were cool… in a way we hadn’t yet identified.
I have been back in Israel many times since that summer and lived there for a year. I’ve experienced Israel when things were terrible—in the middle of the 2nd Intifada for example—and when things were great, as in the midst of the Oslo Process, or in times of incredible economic growth the last several years. But I have never again had the privilege of sharing in a moment of great national joy, like the Entebbe rescue. I imagine the joy at the victory in the 6-Day War must have been even more amazing—but 9 years after that, having lived through many other challenges, Israelis rejoiced completely in a way that I have never seen in America, but hope to see some day here, without the trauma of surviving a terrorist attack.
And that made me really love Israel so much more, as a Jew who shared the joy and relief to at least some degree.
A great memory, connected still with the 4th of July.