Friday, June 8, 2007

Forty years ago: a man named Moshé

On June 7, 1967, Christine and I, with our daughter Emmanuelle in a pram, boarded the Lloyd Triestino vessel Marconi at Genoa, on the northwestern coast of Italy. The following day, the ship called in at Naples, our last European port before sailing out to Australia. Here's the stamp in my passport, dated June 8, 1967:

We were heading towards the entry into the Suez Canal when an unexpected message over the ship's public-address system announced that we were about to turn around and head towards the Strait of Gibraltar, with the aim of sailing to Australia by the sea route around the tip of South Africa. In our hectic preparations for this trip to my homeland, Christine and I had not been following the news, and we were unaware that, over the last four days, the defense forces of Israel had annihilated the Egyptian air force and that, at that very instant, they were encircling the Egyptian army in the Sinai.

Insofar as the Suez Canal was theoretically accessible, even if the nation of Egypt was henceforth in a terrible mess, why did the captain of the Marconi make that last-minute decision on June 8, 1967 to change our route to Australia, resulting in a voyage that would be about a week longer than planned? It was only quite recently that I obtained, by chance, an answer to that question. And Christine and Emmanuelle will no doubt encounter the following explanation for the first time.

Here's a photo of a small US navy intelligence vessel named the Liberty, which happened to be operating in the eastern Mediterranean in June 1967:

At the same time that our Marconi was sailing calmly from Naples to the Suez Canal, a terrible naval drama was being enacted just a few nautical miles ahead of us. Tsahal fighter planes imagined mistakenly that the Liberty was an enemy vessel. They fired upon it, and Israeli torpedo boats got into the act, too. The combined air/sea attack killed 34 Americans, wounded 171 and destroyed the Liberty.

Besides this incident, the captain of our liner had probably learned, too, that a fleet of Soviet bombers had just landed in Alexandria, and that the conflict could flare into a global war if Israel carried on its rampage. Stunned observers would soon learn that, on the final two days of that famous Six Day War, Israel would capture the Golan Heights from Syria. By then, Egypt had lost the Sinai, and Jordan had lost its West Bank territories.

Meanwhile, a man named Moshé Dayan (shown here with generals Uzi Narkiss and Yitzhak Rabin) would lead his brethren proudly to a newly-bulldozed piazza at the base of the western wall of Herod's Temple in Jerusalem.

The actors of that epoch—Nasser, Dayan and Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol—died long ago, but the Holy City and much of the Palestinian West Bank territories are still occupied. And this state of affairs is likely to endure.

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