The BBC Erases Non-Israeli Jews From Entebbe Hostages — and Refuses to Correct Its Error
Many media outlets have recently published obituaries for the heroic Air France pilot Michel Bacos, who, along with his flight crew, stayed with the hostages in the 1976 Entebbe plane hijacking.
On June 27, 1976, Air France Flight 139, carrying over 200 passengers, took off for Paris from Ben-Gurion International Airport, with a stopover at Athens. Shortly after takeoff from Athens, the plane was hijacked by four terrorists, including two Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The plane was flown to Entebbe, Uganda, where 148 non-Israeli and non-Jewish hostages were released over the course of the following two days. An audacious Israeli commando operation freed the remaining 94 Israeli and Jewish passengers — and the 12 Air France crew members who had stayed with the hostages.
Who were those hostages?
- The New York Times: “Three days later, the hijackers freed the 148 passengers who were neither Jewish nor Israeli.”
- Associated Press: “The seven pro-Palestinian hijackers held some 110 Jewish and Israeli hostages.“
- NPR: “The hijackers then began to separate the Israeli and Jewish passengers from all others.”
- Public Radio International: “The terrorists freed 148 non-Jewish passengers and offered to release Bacos and the crew. Bacos refused to leave the Jewish passengers.”
- The Jerusalem Post: “The terrorists split up the hostages between those who were Israeli or Jewish and those who were not.
- The Washington Post: “According to published accounts of the event, their terror escalated when their captors separated the Jews and Israelis from the rest of the group.”
The historical record is pretty clear, and, if the international media coverage is anything to go by, the consensus is that the terrorist hijackers separated Jews as well as the Israelis from the rest of the passengers.
But what about the BBC‘s story?
It quotes Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi, who said: “Michel was a hero. By bravely refusing to give in to antisemitism and barbarity he brought honor to France.”
It later goes on to say:
The passengers were eventually split up. The non-Israelis were flown to Paris while the 94 Israeli passengers were held hostage.
Having quoted Estrosi mentioning antisemitism, the BBC then erased the Jewish hostages who weren’t counted as Israelis.
A simple error easily corrected. Or so we thought.
Following an official complaint, and a request to acknowledge that hostages were targeted for being Jewish as well as Israeli, this was the BBC’s emailed response:
Thank you for getting in touch about our article reporting the death of Entebbe pilot Michel Bacos (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-47719367).
Our information was sourced from this account by hostage Ilan Hartuv:
“The terrorists separated the Israelis from the non-Israelis,” says Hartuv, one of the unofficial leaders of the hostages, and the official translator from English to Hebrew in talks with Amin, who visited the hostages a number of times. “The separation was done based on passports and ID cards. There was no selection of Jews versus non-Jews.”
On the third day of the hijacking, the hijackers demanded that all the Israelis, including those with dual citizenship (Israeli and foreign), assemble in the transit hall of Entebbe airport. They were joined by the plane’s crew members, led by the French captain, Michel Bacos. The rest of the passengers, carrying non-Israeli passports, were transferred to another hall. Later they were freed and flown to Paris.
‘We’re not against Jews’
“Many of the freed hostages were Jewish,” Hartuv explains. “In the talks my friends and I conducted with some of the terrorists, they told us explicitly: We’re not against the Jews, only against Israel. It is true that the female German terrorist acted like a Nazi. She yelled and threatened to kill us all the time. But some of her friends acted differently toward us. One of them was the one we called the Peruvian [because he was a representative of [Palestinian terrorist leader Wadie] Haddad’s organization in South America].”
Hartuv recalls that the Israelis were joined by two couples from Belgium and the United States, and two teens from Brazil, who had completed a year of studies in a Jerusalem yeshiva: “They were transferred to the Israeli group because when we landed in Entebbe, before dawn, they had put on tefillin and recited morning prayers.”
We approached the Peruvian and asked that they be transferred to the foreign group because they were not Israelis. The Peruvian agreed and transferred the two Brazilians. Later they were freed with the rest of the non-Israeli hostages. He apologized for not being able to free the other two couples because the German woman wouldn’t allow it.”
He notes that the Israelis were joined by two couples from Belgium and the United States because they had put on tefillin and recited morning prayers, but points out that the initial separation of passengers was done based on passports and ID cards.
So we don’t have a problem with the wording of our sentence, which was providing brief background in an article that wasn’t about the hijacking itself, but the death of Michel Bacos.
What the Haaretz article and the eyewitness account do is to question the motivations of the terrorists, chiefly whether their motivation was antisemitic or anti-Israel — shades of a modern-day argument over antisemitism and anti-Zionism.
What it does not do is change the facts — that there were both Jews and Israelis taken hostage based on their national and religious identities. Even adding the word “mainly” to the 94 Israeli passengers referenced in the BBC story might have alleviated the original error.
But the BBC refuses to admit such an error, and compounds it by searching for a way out.
Couldn’t it be argued, as the BBC would do, that the Haaretz account is more authoritative than others because it is an eyewitness account?
For example, The Guardian‘s Jonathan Freedland, in a feature-length article to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Entebbe operation in 2016, interviewed Israeli passenger and hostage Sara Davidson:
The hijackers, in a plan agreed with Amin, divided Israelis from non-Israelis, gathering the former in the transit hall, the latter elsewhere. The non-Israeli group were soon released and flown to Paris. But included in the group kept behind were some Jews who were not Israeli. “There were two couples, religious Jews, and they had no Israeli passports,” Davidson recalls. “They were crying and shouting that they are not Israelis — it didn’t help them. The [hijackers] just pushed them to the other room, which we called the Israeli room.” Some remembered this process differently, but to Sara and others, it seemed as if the hijackers were dividing people not by citizenship, but by ethnicity. The fact that these orders were issued in German accents stirred a painful memory.
While the process that led to the hostage selection may be remembered or interpreted differently by some, it doesn’t change the fact that there were both Jews and Israelis among the hostages.
Since when is it the job of the BBC to cherry pick the facts to suit its apparent desire to exonerate terrorists of antisemitism in order to portray their cause as “only” against Israelis?
The BBC’s obstinate refusal to amend a few words in one sentence of its story point to something that should have no place in the BBC’s mandate, which specifically tries to prevent political editorializing in the way that we see here.
Simon Plosker is Managing Editor of HonestReporting, the world’s largest grassroots organization monitoring anti-Israel media bias. A version of this article was originally published by HonestReporting.