In a strange coincidence of timing, the world marked two events of great import to the Jewish people during this past Fourth of July weekend. The first was the death of Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, author of 54 books, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The second was the 40th anniversary of the Raid on Entebbe, in which Israeli commandos flew 2500 miles to Uganda to rescue 102 hostages.
The two events inform the way the world sees modern Jewry. But they do so from opposing poles. Elie Wiesel’s life and works embody the Jew as Victim. When he wrote about genocide or evil on a mass scale, Wiesel commanded respect because these were not merely academic issues for him. They were part of his personal biography. The Raid on Entebbe, on the other hand, symbolizes the Jew as Warrior. The Israeli soldiers stunned the world with their lethal military effectiveness.
The differences have consequences. As the Jewish State’s image shifted from Wiesel’s world of suffering and oppression, to the triumph of the Entebbe operation, so did sympathy and support. Israel became perceived more as master than martyr.
Elie Wiesel was one of the world’s most honored writers, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, the French Legion of Honor, and the Nobel Peace Prize. The formative experience in Wiesel’s life, and the touchstone of most of his writing, was his ordeal as an inmate in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps.
In the Spring of 1944, Hungary, which had previously shielded its Jewish populace, allowed the Germans to deport them to concentration camps. The Wiesel family was sent to Auschwitz in German-occupied Poland. Like all new arrivals, his family lined up for “selection.” His mother and youngest sister were sent to the gas chamber. He and his father were selected for work. They managed to survive the horrors of slave labor through January 1945, when they were force-marched through the snow, just ahead of advancing Soviet troops. After reaching a rail station, they were jammed into open cattle cars for a ten-day journey to Buchenwald. Only 12 of the 100 fellow prisoners in Wiesel’s wagon survived the trip. His father, suffering from dysentery and beaten repeatedly by guards and other inmates, died in Buchenwald, three months before the camp was liberated by the American Third Army.
After his liberation, Wiesel emigrated to France, where he found work as a journalist. For ten years, he wrote nothing about his experience in the camps. Then, encouraged by François Mauriac, the 1952 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Wiesel began a memoir. Words poured out, as if cascading over a broken dam. His memoir was published in Yiddish and ran over 900 pages. It sold few copies. Eventually, an English-language version entitled Night, condensed to 115 pages, was published. It has sold over 10 million copies, and established Wiesel’s worldwide reputation.
Wiesel embodied Jewish suffering in the Holocaust. The Raid on Entebbe cast Jews in a different light.
On June 27, 1976, German and Palestinian terrorists hijacked an Air France Airbus en route to Paris from Athens. The hijackers diverted the flight, first to Libya and then to Uganda, where four more terrorists joined them, and where the dictator Idi Amin provided military protection. In a ritual eerily reminiscent of the Auschwitz selection lines, the passengers were separated by religion and nationality. Non-Jewish, non-Israeli passengers were permitted to leave. All did, except for the Air France flight crew, which elected to stay with the Jewish and Israeli passengers.
On July 3, after negotiations failed, four Hercules transports took off from an Israeli Air Force base. The planes flew 2,500 miles to Uganda, flying low to avoid Egyptian, Saudi, and Sudanese radar, and landed on the tarmac at Entebbe. One plane unloaded a Mercedes with Ugandan flags, designed to mimic Amin’s limousine. The planes also unloaded Land Rovers and an assault force of 29 Israeli commandos, led by Yonatan Netanyahu, the brother of Israel’s future Prime Minister.
Within 30 minutes, the commandos had killed the terrorists and 45 Ugandan soldiers. They freed the French crew and all of the passengers, except for three who were killed in the cross-fire. Before leaving, they destroyed 11 Soviet-made MiGs, to prevent pursuit. A 74-year old Jewish woman, hospitalized outside the airport, was murdered on orders of Amin after the raid.
The raiding force and hostages arrived in Israel on July 4, 1976. The sole Israeli combat fatality was Yonatan Netanyahu, the commander.
One can sense the cosmic gap between the liberation of the surviving Jews of Buchenwald from the liberation of the Jewish passengers in Entebbe by comparing the accounts of a death at each place.
Elie Wiesel described the death of his father, and his own impotence, in his original Yiddish-language version of Night.
I remember that night, the most horrendous of my life:
“. . . Eliezer, my son, come here . . . I want to tell you something . . . Only to you . . . Come, don’t leave me alone . . . Eliezer . . .”
I heard his voice, grasped the meaning of his words and the tragic dimension of the moment, yet I did not move.
It had been his last wish to have me next to him in his agony, at the moment when his soul was tearing itself from his lacerated body—yet I did not let him have his wish.
I was afraid.
Afraid of the blows.
That was why I remained deaf to his cries.
Instead of sacrificing my miserable life and rushing to his side, taking his hand, reassuring him, showing him that he was not abandoned, that I was near him, that I felt his sorrow, instead of all that, I remained flat on my back, asking God to make my father stop calling my name, to make him stop crying. So afraid was I to incur the wrath of the SS.
In fact, my father was no longer conscious.
Yet his plaintive, harrowing voice went on piercing the silence and calling me, nobody but me.
“Well?” The SS had flown into a rage and was striking my father on the head: “Be quiet, old man! Be quiet!”
My father no longer felt the club’s blows; I did. And yet I did not react. I let the SS beat my father, I left him alone in the clutches of death. Worse: I was angry with him for having been noisy, for having cried, for provoking the wrath of the SS.
“Eliezer! Eliezer! Come, don’t leave me alone . . .”
His voice had reached me from so far away, from so close. But I had not moved.
Here is the account of Adam Coleman, a staff sergeant riding in the Mercedes at Entebbe, describing the last time he saw Yoni Netanyahu.
We were slowly getting out of the car. Those of us in the back row were stuck until the middle row, where the Amnon Team was, got out, and it was only after Zussman got out that my team could get out as well. Yoni was standing outside by the Mercedes and realized that things weren’t moving, that the guys weren’t coming out of the car, and that our assault was stuck. And he yelled at us ‘Come on, charge! Come on, charge!’ and a thought crossed through my mind that this was just like in the movies, or in our drilling, and then Yoni ran forward and charged, leading the force after him, and released the jam. A true commander, a brave man. This was the last time I saw him.
One can also sense the gap by comparing pictures. Below is a photograph of Buchenwald, taken just days after the liberation. Elie Weisel is on the second row from the bottom, seventh man from the left. These men have been freed – note the U.S. Army mess kits. They are safe. But their faces bear the hollow, docile look of men who do not control their fate.
Here are the swaggering faces of the Israeli commandos, just returned from Entebbe.
Thirty years and a hundred million miles separate the skeletal Jewish youths in the concentration camp from the cocky Jewish youths back from Uganda. And in that distance lies the paradox of power. For as long as the image of Jewry was Wiesel’s emaciated face, Israel commanded the pity and the affection – if not the respect – of the world. When the image metamorphosized into brash commandos, the world’s affection for Israel cooled.
The memories of the past Fourth of July evoked both faces. It also evoked a third, more ominous face.
The day before Elie Wiesel died was al-Quds Day in Iran. Hundreds of thousands marched and chanted “Death to Israel.” General Hossein Salami, deputy chief of the elite Revolutionary Guards, announced: “In Lebanon alone over 100,000 missiles are ready at all times to fly … at the heart of the Zionist regime. Tens of thousands of other missiles … have been planted across the Islamic world and are awaiting orders so that with the push of a button a sinister and dark dot on the political geography of the world disappears forever.”
Perhaps someday the threat to push a button to make the Jewish State disappear forever will be carried out. Perhaps a survivor will emerge from the wreckage to bear witness to this second Holocaust, and perhaps he will be as gifted a writer as Elie Wiesel. If so, he will no doubt wring sympathy and tears from a mourning world.
Memories of Entebbe remind us that tears are not enough to prevent the next Night.
2 responses to “ELIE WIESEL, ENTEBBE, AND THE PARADOX OF POWER”
Night also depicts how he saw babies thrown onto fire pits. That moment, as the stench of burning flesh rushed up into his nostrils, was a turning point for humanity. After this horrific act, and others, the cry of “never again”, primarily for the Jewish community, but also for all of humanity, was heard. The solution was the rule of law, not the rule of force. Strength counts, and is essential whether it is Israel or the US, but let us continue down the path to the rule of law as well.
I remember a story shortly after Entebbe: The French pilot of the hijacked plane was being debriefed, and stated that when he heard noise and firing, he knew the Israelis had come for the captives.
He was asked, “How did you know they were Israelis?”
He answered, “Mais qui d’autre?” (Who else?)
This means a lot to me. Much as we would wish some sort of common human decency to arm itself and institute righteous might in aid of the victimized, we are not in that world. Jews have acted to arm themselves and protect themselves and that is their right, their right enacted into might.