The French pilot who stayed with his Jewish passengers at Entebbe

March 28, 2019 by Jonathan S. Tobin -
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We live in a time when it seems as if the guard rails that briefly deterred the spread of antisemitism have collapsed.

Jonathan S. Tobin/JNS

That seems particularly true in Europe, where the memory of the Holocaust has either dimmed or is interpreted in such a fashion as to not connect with the current violence and hatred against living Jews. We see evidence of this in the rise of a BDS movement predicated on denying rights to Jews that no one would think to withhold from any other people and a refusal of others to understand that anti-Zionism is inherently antisemitic. We see it in the willingness of politicians, even here in the United States, to spread the classic tropes of antisemitism about Jews.

Under these circumstances, and especially with a hypocritical international community condemning Israel and ignoring the attacks made upon it by Hamas terrorists, it is sometimes hard for Jews to remember that they are not alone. Even in the darkest days of the Holocaust—when murder and betrayal of one sort or another seemed to be all that the non-Jewish world could offer the embattled victims—there have always been some righteous gentiles who risked their lives to stand with the Jewish people.

Such a person was Michel Bacos, who died this week at the age of 95.

If Bacos’s name is unfamiliar to most readers, it’s not surprising. He was something of a footnote to history, a supporting player in a drama that starred other people. But his role in the story of the rescue of the passengers of an Air France plane that was hijacked to Entebbe, Uganda, deserves to be both remembered and retold.

Bacos was the pilot of Air France Flight 139 that took off from Ben-Gurion International Airport on June 27, 1976, bound for Paris with a stopover in Athens. It was during the stop in Athens that the plane took on four terrorists—two Palestinians and two Germans—who seized control and diverted it to Libya and then to Uganda.

It was in Uganda where, operating with the permission of dictator Idi Amin, the terrorists took the passengers and crew off the plane, and imprisoned them as hostages at Entebbe airport. There, acting in a manner reminiscent of the Holocaust, the hijackers separated the Jews from the non-Jews among the passengers.

But when the hijackers chose to release the non-Jews, Bacos and his crew were presented with a choice. The German and Palestinian terrorists were ready to free them along with the other non-Jews that had been on the plane. But in act of quiet heroism and self-sacrifice that the Entebbe survivors have never forgotten, Bacos told the hijackers that he would not leave without his Jewish and Israeli passengers. The rest of his crew followed his lead and faced the real possibility of death, either at the hands of the hijackers or from the mentally unstable Amin, who had similarly threatened to kill them.

Under difficult conditions and with the threat of murder always present, Bacos stayed with the Jews until Israeli rescuers arrived on July 4 (the American bicentennial, of all days). The lightning raid (indeed, it was called “Operation Thunderbolt”) liberated the hostages after a fierce battle in which the terrorists and 21 of their Ugandan allies were killed. The one Israeli death was the leader of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit that carried out the rescue, Yonatan Netanyahu, whose younger brother would one day become Israel’s prime minister.

In the years that followed the drama at Entebbe, Bacos lived a full and rich life with his wife and children, and returned often to Israel, befriending in particular one of the Israeli rescuers who had been paralyzed by gunfire from the Ugandans.

Nor had this been the first time he had acted courageously. As a teenager during World War II, he had run away from home to join the Free French forces battling the Germans and became an officer.

Michel Bacos’s example reminds us that there are always some brave people who choose honor—and the principles of liberty and equality on which the French Republic was founded—over hate.

France has a long and troubled history of antisemitism. The Dreyfus case—where anti-Semites framed an innocent Jewish army officer of treason—and the egregious collaboration of the French puppet Vichy government and police with the Nazis during the Holocaust and other instances of hate, form part of a narrative of Jew-hatred. Sadly, that continues today with troubling attacks on Jews and the use of antisemitic smears by populist “yellow-vest” demonstrators protesting the government of French President Emmanuel Macron.

But Michel Bacos’s example reminds us that there are always some brave people who choose honor—and the principles of liberty and equality on which the French Republic was founded—over hate.

Such bravery, like hate, is a choice. And it is no different, albeit less dramatic, than the one that is presented to everyone alive today by their attitude to the BDS movement. Many in Europe and even some in the United States who support that antisemitic effort are choosing to stand with the terrorists rather than the Jews, as they identify with those seeking to eliminate the Jewish state and terrorize its people with rockets, just as the Entebbe hijackers did with their weapons.

Although Charles De Gaulle, Bacos’s commander during his days with the Free French, is best remembered now by Jews for his hostility towards Israel at the time of the 1967 Six-Day War, he nevertheless did not tolerate the antisemitic tendencies of many of even those Frenchmen who resisted the Nazis and wished to exclude Jews from their ranks, saying at the time, “Whether he is a Jew … or all manner of other things, I see only one thing, that he is a Frenchman … I do not know difference of race or political opinion among us. I know only two kinds of Frenchmen: those who do their duty and those who do not.”

Michel Bacos was a Frenchmen who did his duty, and who did honor to France and humanity with courage that should stand as an example for all decent people to emulate. May his memory be for a blessing.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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