Hey! I’m Noam Weissman and you’re listening to Unpacking Israeli History, the podcast that takes a deep dive into some of the most intense, historically fascinating, and often misunderstood events and stories linked to Israeli history. Unpacking Israeli History is generously sponsored by Alan Fisher and Barbara Sommer, and Jon and Rachie Teller, and this episode is generously sponsored by Marci and Alex S. Kaufman.
Before we start, I want to tell you two things. The first is about one of our other podcasts from Unpacked. It’s called Nice Jewish Girls. Each week, my colleague, Julia Jassey, interviews a different powerhouse Jewish woman. We’re talking politicians, writers, activists, businesswomen. You name her, Julia is talking to her. She’s learning her story, and getting to know, who is this woman, and why does she matter to me, to us, and to the world? The conversations are awesome, and I walk away excited and inspired about our future…most for the age when my daughters Liana and Nissa and yes, my son Eyal, will be able to listen. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
The second thing I want to tell you about is a new segment we’re starting for season two, called, Israel Nerd Talk. See, when we say we’re reading and responding to every piece of mail, we mean it, and we’re going to start sharing the coolest pieces of feedback with you guys. Okay, yalla, let’s do this.
I’m a kid of the 90s, so to all the Gen Zers, out there, you’ll have to imagine this story. For the older millennials listening, this imagery will evoke some memories, for sure.
What was the best surprise thing that would happen in elementary school? A substitute teacher? Eh, those were hit or miss. Classes canceled for an assembly? Those were usually pretty boring. Everyone knows, the best surprise in elementary school…was that moment when the TV gets rolled into the classroom. Everyone seems to be dancing, singing, ecstatic.
You know that feeling? Put away your pencil and your notebook: It’s TV time!
This 5th grade day on Park Heights Avenue at Rambam elementary school, my Hebrew teacher, Morah Chana, told us today was going to be different.
Duh, I thought to myself, we got the TV in the room!
Morah Chana continued, “Today, I am going to show you a film about the most heroic moment in Jewish history.”
Do you guys know what it is? She asked.
So, we all start guessing:
1. Probably something Biblical, like the crossing of the Red Sea? Cmon now.
2. Or, the building of the Temple, the beit hamikdash, by King Solomon?
3. Or, let’s go to modern times. Obviously, it’s the establishment of Israel!
Nope, nope, and nope, Morah Chana said. And then, straight out of a Marvel comic book, she tells us about “Operation Thunderbolt.” – and our minds…were blown.
For the next two hours, we watched the 1979 thriller, Operation Thunderbolt, about the incredible raid on Entebbe, and since then, my life is changed. 25 years later, this Noam looks at that 5th grade Noam and says, “How amazing is that story! How remarkable!”
But, I also say another thing. Do you, 5th grade Noam, understand the story the way that I, adult Noam, do? Because I hope not. I hope that as I’ve learned more about the story, the inspiration continues, and the facts, the details, the questions of leadership, and the ethical dilemmas, all come to life for me.
June 27, 1976. Americans are wearing bell bottoms and dancing to disco; Jimmy Carter is in the White House; and infamous Ugandan President Idi Amin Dada Oumee — whose nickname among his people was “the machete” — has been ruling Uganda with an iron first for five years.
In Israel, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin presided over a dovish coalition government — a position to which he was appointed by the Labor Party (Avodah) after the resignation of Golda Meir in 1973 following the Yom Kippur War.
But Rabin’s appointment was not without controversy. His defense minister, Shimon Peres, had been passed over for the position of Prime Minister — a bitterness that would simmer over the course of Rabin’s tenure, coming to a head in the summer of 1976.
But this story does not start in the Knesset, in 1976. Before even getting to this point, we have to understand the climate of airline hijacking in the 1970s. See, these days, in a post-9/11 world, we’re all used to pretty intense restrictions when flying — limited liquids in our carry ons; extensive security checks; I know I was scarred by the one time I mistakenly wore flip flops for a flight, and felt that dirty airport floor against my bare feet. But I digress. Back in the 70s, such stringent security measures were virtually unheard of.
With such lax security, it’s no wonder that Brendan Koerner, author of the 2013 book The Skies Belong To Us, calls 1968-1972 “the golden age of airline hijacking.” He estimates that during this time period, hijackings happened as often as once a week.
Despite many attempts by terrorist groups, El Al, Israel’s national airline, has only been hijacked once in its entire existence, when terrorists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or the PFLP, re-routed an El Al plane from Rome to Algeria. The non-Israeli passengers were promptly sent to France, and ten women and children were released soon after. The remaining 12 Israeli hostages spent 40 days in Algeria — the longest hijacking in history — waiting for the Israeli government to negotiate a safe release.
Now, note the separation. Most passengers were released immediately; only the Israeli Jewish passengers actually became hostages. This will come up in our story, as well.
Aside from their continuous, but failed, attempts at hijacking, the PFLP also sowed terror on Israeli soil. In ‘72, Ben Gurion airport — then called Lod Airport — became a slaughterhouse when three members of the Japanese Red Army — a terrorist communist group whose stated goal was “a world revolution” — stepped off an Air France flight from Rome. Israeli airport security had no reason to suspect that the three well-dressed Japanese men carried assault rifles and grenades in their violin cases. But within seconds of entering the airport’s waiting area, the three opened fire, murdering 26 people, including 17 Christian pilgrims from Puerto Rico, and wounding scores more. The terrorists, who had been recruited by the PFLP and trained in Beirut, had no special animus towards Israelis. One summed up his motivation in an interview, saying the massacre was simply his “duty as a soldier of the revolution.”
Pay attention to that, too, by the way. The Arab-Israeli conflict isn’t localized to the three and a half million square miles of the “Middle East.” Actors from as far away as Japan have played a devastating role in the story of terrorism against Israelis.
So, Israelis are no strangers to the horror of terrorism. But the events of June and July 1976 were about to shock the world.
When Air France Flight 139 took off from Tel Aviv on the morning of June 27th, it carried mostly Israeli passengers. But after a stop in Athens to pick up more passengers en route to France, nearly 60% of the 259 souls on board were not Israeli. Among them were four terrorists — two Palestinian, two German — who stormed the cockpit with guns eight minutes into the flight, forcing captain Michel Bacos — a French veteran of WWII — to fly to Benghazi, Libya. Recounting the experience in a later interview, Bacos recalled that “Every time I tried to look in a different direction, he pressed the barrel of his gun against my neck.” Indeed, as Bacos prepared for descent into Benghazi, one of the terrorists warned him to land gently, lest he jostle the explosives on the plane.
Despite these terrifying conditions, the crew managed to touch down in Libya — then ruled by the notoriously anti-Israel dictator Muammar Qaddafi. After refueling, the hijackers demanded to be flown to Entebbe, Uganda.
Now, let’s take a step back for a second and talk about Uganda. If you know anything about Uganda and Israel, you may have heard the famous misconception that Theodore Herzl — father of modern Zionism — had wanted to establish the Jewish homeland in Uganda. Actually, entering the nerd corner here, Herzl’s 1903 “Uganda Proposal” proposed that land in what is actually now Kenya be set aside by the British as a temporary refuge for European Jews fleeing horrendous violence. The plan was initially accepted, but eventually rejected, by his fellow Zionists, so the Uganda Proposal was dead in the water by 1903. [For the full story, you should check out our episode about the Uganda Plan: Herzl and the Non-Promised Land.]
Now fast forward 60 years. The modern nation of Uganda — once a British protectorate — was born in 1962, during the height of decolonization efforts worldwide. Like many recently decolonized countries, it was unstable, and nine years after the country declared independence, the commander of the Ugandan Army — Idi Amin — overthrew President Milton Obote and established a brutal military rule during which he tortured and terrorized his people.
However, Idi Amin continued his predecessor’s friendly relationship with Israel. The two nations were united in their fight against the Northern Sudanese rebels, and Israel supplied the Ugandan army with training and weapons. In ’71, Idi Amin even visited Israel, where he received a warm welcome from Defense Minister Moshe Dayan.
But the relationship soon soured. By 1972, Amin had expelled all Israelis — including those who had trained his army — from Uganda. He also heavily persecuted the tiny community of Abayudaya Jews of Uganda, who — while not ethnically related to Semitic Jews — practice many tenets of Judaism, including Shabbat and kosher.
But back to Amin. Bolstered by Libyan dictator Qaddafi’s hostility to Israel, the Ugandan dictator supported the hijacking of Flight 139. So, after more than 24 harrowing hours of travel, the exhausted and terrorized passengers of Flight 139 touched down in Uganda’s airport, to be greeted by Amin’s forces.
Amin himself personally visited the hostages. In a 2003 interview with Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Emma Rosenkovitch — a French-Israeli hostage — recalls: “Approximately once a day he came to visit, dressed differently each time. Once he was a paratrooper, then he was something else. He told us stories about how concerned he was and how much he loved us, and that his daughter’s name was Sharon, because she was conceived in the Sharon Hotel in Herzliya, when he visited Israel. Every time he came in, he said ‘Shalom’ in Hebrew, and all the passengers applauded him enthusiastically. ‘Are you nuts,’ I told them, ‘the man is a murderer.’ They all said I was right, and the next time he came in and said ‘Shalom,’ they clapped again.”
But the clapping soon stopped when the hostages realized that they were not going home anytime soon — not if Idi Amin and the hijackers had their way. By June 29, two days after the hijacking, the terrorists had made their aims clear: Pay $5 million dollars (which is $22 million in today’s money), and release 53 terrorists held in Israel, West Germany, Kenya, Switzerland and France, or… they would start killing hostages by July 1.
Now, put yourself in Prime Minister Rabin’s shoes. What the heck do you do? You have 260 innocent civilians on this plane. They’re terrified, and they are looking to you for help. And, as the terrorists had shown in the Lod airport massacre, four years earlier, they had little hesitation about massacring innocent people. On the other hand, was Israel really going to negotiate with these terrorists? As Defense Minister Peres recounted in his memoir:
“It was clear to me that we faced, fundamentally, a question of principle.
…If we give in to the hijackers demands and release terrorists…
everyone will understand us, but no one will respect us.”
Yet the opposite – however grim the results – held:
“If, on the other hand, we conduct a military operation to free hostages,
it is possible that no one will understand us – but everyone will respect us.”
As you can imagine, Israel was stuck between a rock and a hard place – and the lives of 260 innocent civilians were waiting on a decision.
And while a daring rescue operation sounded wonderful in theory, Uganda was 3,000 miles away, with the airport heavily guarded by Israeli-trained Ugandan military and PFLP terrorists. And let’s throw in another wrinkle that 5th grade Noam definitely didn’t know – rescue operations had failed before, with horrifying consequences. Weighing heavily on the minds of Rabin, and his entire Cabinet, must have been the recent tragedy of Ma’alot, when, in May of 1974, only two years earlier, three members of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine infiltrated the northern Israeli city. Upon entering the town of Ma’alot, in Northern Israel, the terrorists first massacred two Israeli Arab women and the young Jewish Cohen family (including the 7-month-pregnant mother). They then made for the Netiv Meir Elementary school, where they took 115 people — most of them students — hostage.
Their demands? Release prisoners in a matter of hours — including one of the Japanese perpetrators of the Lod Airport Massacre — or the students would be murdered.
The elite Sayeret Matkal forces were given the go-ahead to storm the building. As Israeli soldiers fought to save the children in the school, the three terrorists unloaded round after round of bullets and grenades, murdering 22 high schoolers and wounding many more.
The specter of these 22 murdered high schoolers haunted Rabin’s cabinet as they pondered their impossible choice.
For Peres, the choice was clear. Behind Rabin’s back, he organized a secret committee to create a rescue plan. He turned to the elite commander of Sayeret Maktal, Yonatan Netanyahu — yes, brother of future prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu — to help him hash out the details. The two pored over maps and airport blueprints, agonizing over the tiny details that could make or break this risky mission.
Remember earlier in the episode, when we talked about the warm relationship between Uganda and Israel in the 60s and early 70s? It turned out that an Israeli company, Solel Boneh, had built the Ugandan terminal — a stroke of luck that surely inspired a lot more confidence in the plan.
And that’s not all. Muki Betser — the 31-year-old deputy commander of the Sayeret Matkal, Yoni’s second in command — had actually trained Ugandan soldiers, back before all of the Israeli soldiers had been kicked out of the country in 1972, when Idi Amin changed his allegiances from Israel to Libya.
Betser was no stranger to difficult assignments. He was in his 20s when he participated in some of Israel’s most daring missions: the 1972 kidnapping of Syrian intelligence officers in Lebanon; the 1973 assassination of PLO leaders behind the massacre at the Munich Olympics; and the defense of Mount Hermon from the Syrians during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. [For more on the Munich Olympics, by the way, see our episode from Season 1 entitled Munich Olympics: When terrorism won.]
But Betser, like many in the Sayeret Matkal, was haunted by that same failure so many were still thinking about: the terrible tragedy of Ma’alot.
Perhaps, though, this plan could be a way to turn the tables — to recover the world’s respect after the divisive Yom Kippur war, only three years earlier, in which Israel was caught unawares, and to burnish the myth of Israeli heroism in the face of insurmountable odds.
So Shimon Peres took the plan to Rabin, and after hours of fiery debate with some of Rabin’s closest advisors, in which plans were suggested and dismissed, Rabin had the final word. In hindsight, people tend to remember Peres and Rabin as best buds who would take long walks in the park together, sip mai tais, and vent to each other about their personal lives. Not. At. All. Rabin could not stand his old rival Peres, calling him in his memoir “a tireless backstabber,” but he had to admit that the plan was pretty pretty good, thoughtful, well-researched, and bolstered by Betser’s experience in Uganda.
To throw salt in the wound, news emerged that back in Uganda, the terrorists were preparing to release some hostages – but only some. In his memoir, Peres reported that the terrorists separated Jews from non-Jews, but Emma Rosenkovitch, the French-Israeli Jew we mentioned earlier, noted that: “They released almost everyone who wasn’t an Israeli. The exceptions were two ultra-Orthodox couples from Canada, whom they told to stay with us.”
Three others — some of them dual citizens of Israel, some not — chose to stay with the Israelis, even though the terrorists had no idea of their identity. Among them was Jean Jacques Mimouni, subject of a 2012 documentary called “Live and Die in Entebbe.” And here’s the director of the documentary, Eyal Boers, in an interview with Australian media:
“The hijacked plane, with its passengers, landed in Entebbe, the hijackers separated the Jewish and the Israeli passengers from the non-Israeli passengers. And Jean-Jacques had French citizenship, so he could easily have gone with the others and saved himself. Why do you think he stayed with the Israelis?”
“There are two sides to it. I have to say upfront that I think, you know, terrorists who are able to hijack a plane are smart enough also to recognize all the little tricks Israelis and Jews might have to cover up their identity. So they might know that Mimouni is a Jewish Tunisian name. They could have found out, they could have said to themselves, you know, well this guy looks Israeli, etc. etc. He’s 19. But the film is called Live or Die in Entebbe because I felt that as a 19 year old, this guy had an identity issue. And I feel that as a person who had French citizenship and only came four years before that to Israel, it was sort of an identity declaration: I am Israeli, I am Jewish, I’m gonna stay with this side of the hostages.”
By the thirtieth of June, a day before their ultimatum was due, the terrorists began releasing hostages. And Israel told the terrorists they were willing to negotiate, which pushed back the deadline of July 1. By the afternoon of July 3rd, the only hostages left were the Israelis and the crew. And Operation Entebbe, also known as Operation Thunderbolt, was about to begin. This was perhaps the most daring rescue mission the Israelis had ever made — 100 hostages in a foreign country with a very unfriendly government.
The plan was complex. On the afternoon of July 3rd, the Israelis flew four military transport planes less than 100 feet from the ground to avoid showing up on Egyptian radar. They were followed by two passenger planes — one outfitted like a mobile hospital — to scoop up the 100 hostages. On the planes were the black Mercedes and Land Rovers that Idi Amin’s forces favored. Unfortunately, the Israelis didn’t know that Idi Amin had just bought himself a white Mercedes, nearly scuppering the whole plan. Upon the landing, right before midnight, a Ugandan guard noticed the suspicious cars, and raised his weapon… and Yoni Netanyahu, ignoring orders not to shoot, fired at him.
The element of surprise lost, the Israelis rushed the building, half-expecting it to explode. But the building was not booby-trapped. And despite not knowing exactly where the hostages were held, the Israelis found them quickly, making short work of the seven terrorists who held them. In 99 minutes, almost all the hostages were on the plane, and it safely took off, and returned the hostages to Israel on July 4 – a fortuitous day for the Americans among us, the bicentennial of the declaration of independence, the document inspiring freedom for billions of people across the globe. It was a glorious day for Israel and Jewish people across the globe. The team had prepared for up to 25 casualties, but in the end, there were only five — four hostages and one commando. Yitzhak Rabin famously praised the mission as “most exemplary victories from both the human and moral, and the military-operational points of view.”
But the mission was not an unqualified success. When the Israelis rushed the building, they screamed “Stay down! We are Israelis!” in English and Hebrew. But tragically, two hostages stood, catching “friendly fire” — the 19-year-old French-Israeli Jean-Jacques Mimouni, and the 52-year old Pasco Cohen. Additionally, a third hostage, Ida Borochovitch, was killed during the firefight between the Israelis and the terrorists, as was Yoni Netanyahu — the Harvard-educated Israeli “golden boy” lauded for his heroism during the Six Day War, and older brother of the future prime minister — was killed.
Furious and humiliated by the Israeli raid on his country, Idi Amin demanded revenge. He murdered 12 of his own soldiers, accusing them of collaborating with Israel. And because Kenya had allowed the Israelis to refuel en-route to Entebbe, Idi Amin ordered the massacre of nearly 300 Kenyans. Thousands more Kenyans living in Uganda fled to avoid the same fate.
Another hostage — a 74-year-old British-Israeli named Dora Bloch — had been sent to the hospital a few days before the rescue mission after choking on a chicken bone. In retaliation for the raid on Entebbe, Idi Amin ordered her killed. When the medical staff at the hospital tried to intervene, they too were killed. For years, Uganda denied knowledge of her whereabouts, causing Britain to cut ties with the East African nation. Bloch’s body was discovered in a sugarcane field in 1979, her face so badly burned that her family was unable to identify her.
Despite the casualties, the hostages’ return was a great triumph, with Israelis taking to the streets, singing, dancing, and even blowing the shofar in celebration – is anything more Jewish than that?
After the scarring events of the first half of the 1970s — the Yom Kippur War, the massacres at the Lod airport, the Munich Olympics, and the city of Ma’alot — the Israelis were able to regain the self-confidence they first felt after their legendary victory in the Six Day War in 1967. The myth of Israeli might — of a tiny country staring down insurmountable odds — bolstered Israelis at home and Jews around the world. Even the UN — the UN!, which had declared Zionism to be racism just a year prior, in a resolution sponsored by 25 countries, including Uganda — was reluctant to criticize Israel. Despite condemnation from some African states, Israel found support from the US, from the UK, France, and Sweden, among others.
So, that’s the story of Operation Entebbe. Here are your five fast facts:
- In the mid-1970s, Israel was exhausted. In the last few years alone, the country had endured the Yom Kippur War, massacres at the Lod Airport, the Munich Olympics, and Ma’alot.
- Israel and Uganda had had a good relationship, and had worked together. But by 1975, their relationship had fallen apart, and Idi Amin was in full support of the Palestinian terrorists who hijacked Air France Flight 139.
- The Israeli leadership spent days in serious debate trying to decide the best course of action, and ultimately decided on a daring, secret, rescue mission to try to save the hostages.
- Although the operation was a resounding success, there were still five casualties, including Yoni Netanyahu, who became a household name, an icon, and whose brother would go on to become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history.
- The raid on Entebbe became a critical moment for both Israeli and non-Israeli Jews, reinstilling them with the pride they had after the Six Day War in 1967, and gaining support worldwide, even from the UN.
So, where does this leave us? As students of history, what can we learn from the legacy of Entebbe?
Many draw different lessons from Entebbe. Some people like to claim that this is evidence that Israeli history is full of daring heroism and brilliant strategy. Others claim a different perspective: that the decision to rescue the hostages rather than negotiate with the hijackers influenced peace talks down the line, that Israelis — bolstered by this amazing and unlikely success in 1976 — were less likely to come to the negotiating table.
Like all of history, the rescue at Entebbe resists simple answers and pat explanations. But here are some of the enduring lessons as I see it.
One. Call it a coincidence, call it Divine Providence, call it whatever you want. As a child of America whose soul is bound up with Israel and the Jewish people, I think there’s something really special about this raid occurring not only on July 4th, America’s Independence Day, in which we commemorate our formal break from Britain, but that it was July 4, 1976, exactly 200 years after the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress. Just like after the Six Day War, American Jews were filled with pride after Israel successfully fulfilled their mission, with tragic, but minimal, losses. The story of the American revolution is about American liberation, and the story of Israel is the story of Jewish liberation.
And the Entebbe connection between America and Israel goes deeper. As a result of the operation, the United States military developed rescue units, modeled after the unit employed in Entebbe. And only four years after Entebbe, that model was unfortunately deployed in the failed rescue mission to save the 52 American citizens during the Iran Hostage Crisis.
Which leads me to my second takeaway. Rabin and his advisors agonized about the right decision, and they ended up choosing this rescue mission, which, incredibly, worked. But when America attempted a similar rescue mission to save their citizens during the Iran Hostage Crisis, they failed, leading to the death of one Iranian civilian, and eight American servicemen.
Which begs the question – was Rabin right to attempt this bold, daring, and maybe even reckless rescue attempt? We always like to think so, but maybe that’s only because it succeeded. What if it failed, like Carter did – would we still think he was right? I’m not a strategist, and could never answer a military question like that. But here’s a quick thought. A decision can be right, even if the result isn’t the success you were hoping for. Shimon Peres actually touches on this in his memoir. He writes, “Given the thin line between success and failure, knowing that what works in one circumstance might be disastrous in another, what do such operations have to teach us? It’s certainly not that daring military action is or isn’t the better course; it’s that daring thinking about one’s options is always the better course.”
Daring thinking is always the better course. Though Rabin was a cautious man, he dared to think boldly and go with the rescue plan. Ultimately, I think that’s what success really means here, and it’s why I personally feel that sense of pride when I think about Entebbe.
The last lesson, I think, is one of leadership. I think again about how Rabin appointed Shimon Peres, his political adversary, to the position of Defense Minister, and he listened to him, even after Peres had put together a secret council and plan. Rabin could have put his ego first – in fact, I think many, or most leaders, would have done so, and said he wouldn’t stand for the disloyalty, and reject the idea out of hand. But Rabin didn’t think that way. He didn’t let allegiance or loyalty be the master. Instead, he let thoughtful, creative, inspiring people hash out ideas, and ultimately, that process prevailed. Rabin, in this situation, showed me what real leadership is. Loyalty might get you power, or respect, but you’ll never have a successful Entebbe, and that’s a lesson I personally walk away with. Thank you, Morah Chana.
Thank you all for listening. Catch future episodes by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. And help us grow this podcast community, by rating and reviewing us on Apple Podcasts.
And now it’s time for our new final segment, Israel Nerd Talk, where we highlight one of you, our amazing listeners. We get the best emails from you guys, and we want to share them with the world. This week, I want to highlight a great letter we got from a listener named Raquel. She wrote to us:
I wanted to say that my husband and I started listening to your new podcast and love it. The purpose, understanding the story of Zionism/Israel, is simply critical and so I am grateful that you are taking on this weighty but important challenge. I think the podcast medium can be really powerful and reach the ears of those who need to hear.
Anyways, wanted to thank you for pursuing this mission, giving me something fun and educational to listen to, and helping to tackle the problem of misunderstanding.
The reason I love this letter so much is because it feels like Raquel hits on exactly what we’re trying to do here. Not just understanding a specific episode of Israeli history, even though, yes, that’s important. But it’s bigger than that. We want everyone listening to have a thicker relationship with Israel, Zionism and the Jewish story, which is not about talking points or defensive postures. It really requires a more complete understanding of Israeli history. So thank you, Raquel. If you’re the only one, then it’s been worth it. But if you listening have thoughts, comments, suggestions, ruminations, whatever to share, don’t hesitate, be in touch! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org