July 4th marks the 43rd anniversary of Operation Entebbe. On June 27, 1976 an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris was hijacked after a stopover in Athens. The 247 passengers and 12 crew members were flown to Entebbe, Uganda. The hijackers were from a breakaway faction of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The situation took a dark and ominous turn when soon after arriving at Entebbe, the non-Israeli passengers were separated from the Israelis, and then released. Besides the Israelis and the crew, all other Jews on the plane were also kept hostage, even if they were not Israeli nationals. (Remember this the next time someone makes the ridiculous claim that being anti-Zionistic is not the same as being anti-Semitic.)
Back in Israel plans for the rescue mission were being devised. The military officer in charge of planning this mission was Ehud Barak, who would later become Prime Minister of Israel. The Prime Minister at the time, Yitzchak Rabin, was under tremendous pressure to ensure the safe release of the hostages – even if it meant negotiating with terrorists. PM Rabin finally gave the orders to embark on the rescue mission. The actual mission is the stuff of movies- in fact, three different movies.
The rescue mission was a success. All of the hijackers were killed, 102 hostages freed. But one Israeli soldier was killed during the operation- Yoni Netanyahu. Soon the phone would ring in the home of Yoni’s brother, a young man then called Ben Nitay. Ben was studying in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The career shift of Yoni’s brother, current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the most visible legacy of that mission, but the impact of Entebbe is felt in other ways too. The PLO stopped hijacking planes and Idi Amin was overthrown, both results can be traced back to the Entebbe mission. The US military man in charge of the operation to capture and kill Osama bin Laden in 2011 was Admiral William McRaven, the author of a detailed study of the raid on Entebbe.
There are many lessons that emerge from Operation Entebbe. For us on Shabbat Parshat Shelach, two of those lessons stand out:
First, the Entebbe mission teaches us that enemies of Israel may be able to hurt and impede us, but nothing and no-one can prevent Jewish destiny from being realized. This was the mistake of the spies. After travelling the land, 10 of the 12 spies came back with negative reports about the Land of Israel. If we look closely at what they report, it is possible that their report is all factually correct. The inhabitants of the land were indeed giants. The cities were in fact fortified. And yes, it was going to be hard to conquer the Land. But even though they may have been right about all of these details, the spies were still wrong- in their unwillingness to factor into their equation the Hand of God and Jewish destiny. As ben Gurion once quipped, “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.”
Second, the Entebbe rescue mission demonstrated Israeli risk taking and initiative. As one military analyst noted, the fact that the Entebbe mission was a success was not surprising; the Ugandans were outmatched in all ways according to all opinions. What was impressive was the “guts” demonstrated by Israeli leadership in ordering the command to do the right thing and get the job done. This is the lesson that we can learn from Yehoshua and Kalev in our Parsha. These two spies understood the role of Divine intervention and Jewish destiny. They are forever remembered for their willingness to show the courage and resolve to speak up and to say what was unpopular and what most people did not want to hear (neither their fellow spies nor Bnai Yisrael).
Let us take a moment this July 4th to remember the lessons from Entebbe- especially those that intersect with the story of the Meraglim: The need to take risks, engage in bold initiatives, say things that at times may be unpopular, and do what needs to be done. At the same time, we must never underestimate the Yad Hashem, the role of God in the unfolding Jewish story. It is Jewish determination coupled with faith in God that assures that Am Yisrael Chai.