By Gabriel Kuhn
On July 4, 1976, an Israeli military commando of about 100 soldiers arrived under the cover of darkness at the airport of Entebbe, Uganda, where a Palestinian-German group of hijackers kept 106 hostages in the old terminal building. The hostages were crew and passengers of an Air France flight heading from Tel Aviv to Paris via Athens a week earlier. The vast majority of hostages were Jewish. The flight had been diverted shortly after departure from Athens. After a short refueling stop in Benghazi, Libya, the hijackers chose Entebbe as the final destination, since they expected, rightfully, a fairly open welcome by the regime of Idi Amin. In exchange for the hostages’ release they demanded the liberation of 53 political prisoners jailed in various countries. The Israeli commando managed to free all but three of the hostages who died during the raid together with all of the hijackers, dozens of Ugandan troops (the exact number remains unclear), and one Israeli soldier, Yonatan Netanyahu, brother of Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Operation Thunderbolt”, as the raid had been dubbed by the Israeli military, quickly gained mythological status in Israel, which it holds to this day. To many Israelis it was proof that Israel and its armed forces were indeed able to guarantee that Jews, no matter where, would no longer have to face murder and annihilation without a swift and compelling response. The worldwide press and entertainment industry were also impressed. Within a year of the event, several books and films had been released, the latter featuring big screen stars such as Anthony Hopkins, Elizabeth Taylor, and Charles Bronson.
In Germany, the debate quickly focused on a particular aspect of the events, namely the fact that self-styled German revolutionaries kept Jews hostage, apparently ready to kill them if their demands weren’t met. What made matters worse was the allegation that the two Germans involved in the hijacking, Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann of the Revolutionary Cells, had taken part in a selection between Jewish and non-Jewish hostages – the second group having been freed and flown to Paris before the Israeli commando arrived. Despite early claims that the selection was purely based on nationality (Israeli vs. non-Israeli) and not on religious/cultural identity (Jewish vs. non-Jewish), the former version was soon accepted as truth, also in radical circles. Skeptics were routinely denounced as apologists of a particularly vile case of left-wing anti-Semitism.
Markus Mohr, a veteran participant and historian of the German autonomous movement, has now, together with a cast of distinguished writers, published a 400-page book that explores this question in detail: what exactly occurred in the old terminal building at Entebbe and how did the infamous selection take place?
In the introduction to the book, Mohr points out that, with regard to the Entebbe hijacking, fact and fiction are very hard to separate. This means that any attempt in reconstructing the actual events requires an analysis of their various interpretations – and misrepresentations – in the media, dramatic reenactments, scholarly books, and the political discourse at large. The outcome is surprisingly engaging and entertaining. Legenden um Entebbe. Ein Akt der Luftpiraterie und seine Dimensionen in der politischen Diskussion (Legends about Entebbe: An Act of Air Piracy and Its Dimensions in Political Discourse), published by Unrast Verlag, tells us as much about the creation of supposed truths and the German left – which, during the past 25 years, has experienced deep ruptures with respect to the understanding of anti-Semitism – as it does about Entebbe itself.
Regarding the book’s central question, Mohr’s views largely correlate with the findings of a 2013 article by Alexander Sedlmaier and Freia Anders, which he credits as the main inspiration for his work: titled “‘Unternehmen Entebbe’ 1976. Quellenkritische Perspektiven auf eine Flugzeugentführung” (‘Operation Entebbe’ 1976: Source-Critical Perspectives on a Hijacking) and originally published in the renowned Jahrbuch für Antisemitismusforschung (Yearbook for Research on Anti-Semitism), the article is reprinted in Mohr’s volume in a slightly revised version. It concludes that “it seems evident that the so-called selection of Entebbe did not take place in the way it is usually told”. Mohr himself is less diplomatic and calls the standard narrative “nonsense”.
Approaching the facts is no political evaluation of the hijacking nor is it a judgment on whether it had anti-Semitic connotations or not. But at least we can now discuss these issues based on detailed and thorough research rather than on perpetual hearsay. This is, without doubt, a step forward in a debate that has often gone awry.