Surviving the Myth

Claude and Emma Rosenkovitch, a peace-activist couple from Jerusalem, were anomalies among the group that was hijacked to Entebbe 27 years ago. They understood the hijackers and did not hide their views. They are also the inspiration for a new Israeli film, `Miss Entebbe'.

Aviv Lavie
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Aviv Lavie

Claude Rosenkovitch wandered about in a daze between the tables piled high with goodies, shaking hands and exchanging congratulations with senior officers, Knesset members and cabinet ministers, whom until then he had seen only on television. Like the other passengers of the hijacked Air France plane who were rescued in Entebbe and had just landed on Israeli soil, he still couldn't digest what he had gone through in the past week. Suddenly he found himself facing the defense minister, Shimon Peres, and the prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin.

"I want to thank you for the daring rescue operation," he said to Rabin. Then, mustering his courage, he added, "I hope you will show the same boldness when you conduct peace negotiations." An oppressive silence descended. Peres was the first to snap out of the embarrassment. Patting Rosenkovitch on the shoulder, he said, "Don't worry, we will deal with the matter of peace,too." Rabin made a face and left.

Even after they were involuntary partners to one of the formative experiences of proud Israeli nationalism, Claude and Emma Rosenkovitch remained outsiders in Israel. Too French, too left, too different. The rumors about their behavior during the hijacking began even as the children in the Jerusalem neighborhood where they lived, like the members of the households of the other hijacked Israelis, decorated the apartment building with flowers in honor of their safe return. The neighbors whispered to one another that the Rosenkovitches had actually applauded the hijackers. People who hang a large election poster of Sheli, the left-wing party they helped establish, and who hobnob with senior Palestinian figures who were expelled from the country, might identify with hijackers, too - that, at least, was the view in Jerusalem of the 1970s. The Rosenkovitches, by the way vehemently deny that they applauded.

Their story served as the inspiration for the new Israeli film, "Miss Entebbe." The co-screenwriter, Dana Shatz, then eight years old, was a neighbor of the Rosenkovitches at 14, Harav Berlin Street. The hijacking of the couple, in July 1976, together with their children, Noam and Ella - who was the youngest Israeli on the plane - thrilled their young neighbor. The Rosenkovitches' eldest son, Danny, then 16, was at home and was adopted for a few days by neighbors, including Dana's parents. Her father, Ya'akov Shatz, who then worked for Israel Radio, was the first to inform Danny that his parents had been freed.

Shatz worked on the screenplay for a few years. The text underwent no few changes during this period. In the final version, it should be noted, very little of the Rosenkovitches' story remains. The neighbor couple have become a neighbor, Elise Rosen (played by Yael Abecassis), a businesswoman who pays a working visit to France and leaves her adolescent son at home. The Sheli posters are there in the background, but the political complexity is somewhere offscreen. Shatz explains that at a certain stage, the work on the film "left her hands" and the director, Omri Levy, who shares the credit for the screenplay with her, "preferred to go in a more psychological and less political direction."

The Rosenkovitches, who saw the film for the first time last month at its premiere during the Jerusalem Film Festival, were not offended, and agreed that "it's perfectly fine - it's an artistic film that is based on memories, not a documentary. We were moved to see some of the things that invoked life in the neighborhood in that period, such as the children's game of dropping plastic bags filled with water from the roof on passersby below, or the names of our son and of the Arab cleaning woman, that were not changed. But we were a little disappointed at the film's level. They say it's aimed at a juvenile audience, so maybe it's all right."

The scent of Europe

Even today, 45 years after they first arrived in Israel, Claude and Emma Rosenkovitch don't seem to completely belong here. They have a heavy French accent and their Hebrew is not fluent. They live in a modest but lovely home in the verdant Baka neighborhood; they bought the place, they say, with the help of compensation they, like the other passengers, received from Air France. Despite his advanced age and the steep hills of Jerusalem, Claude uses a bicycle to get around the city. Emma prefers to walk. He works in his small architect's office in town, "but I lose a lot of money because I refuse to take projects across the Green Line."

She recently took early retirement from her work as a biochemist at Hadassah University Hospital on Mount Scopus and does translations into French, mainly of scientific material. Their circle of friends belongs to the academic and cultural elite of Jerusalem, and is dwindling palpably. "This was a very different city when we got here," Claude says. "Today I prefer Tel Aviv."

Their favorite television station is the Franco-German cultural channel Arte. When the cable television firms blocked the screening of Mohammed Bakri's film "Jenin, Jenin" on the station, Claude was the first to protest. Their gentle, naive manner makes them seem like a piece of Provence in the heart of Jerusalem. And on a boiling day at the end of July, it's hard to think of two more remote places.

They made their first visit to Israel in 1958. As young Zionists imbued with pioneering, socialist passion - as befits members of the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair youth movement - they joined Kibbutz Beit Kama, in the Negev. After a few years they decided to return to France to complete their studies. In 1968, a year after the Six-Day War, they returned, this time as new immigrants.

They didn't have an easy time. They rented a place in Rehovot, in the hope that Emma would find a job at the Weizmann Institute of Science in the city. However, they soon found that in the six years of their absence, the country had changed considerably.

Claude: "Every morning I would go to work in Tel Aviv and all I wanted was to return to Paris. Everything here had changed. The people were intoxicated with power and victory, far more materialistic and far more arrogant. Before we left, the standard of living was very modest, but pretty equal for everyone. You could leave the door of your house unlocked. People with a washing machine were considered rich. By the time we returned, the standard of living had leaped amazingly, but only for some people. Huge gaps were created. I told myself that if this is the situation, Paris was preferable."

Thoughts of leaving faded after an encounter with the melting pot of the Israel Defense Forces. Claude received a call-up notice, was sent to a course in the Artillery Corps, "and I had such a bad experience there that after I finished the course, everything else seemed rosy." At the conclusion of Claude's brief army career, the couple decided to make their home in the capital. They found an apartment in Kiryat Shmuel, "a neighborhood of a good middle class," as Emma says, "with couples of young academics, a lot of children taking piano lessons, bourgeois life in the style of the 1970s."

"They were very different," Dana Shatz recalls. "There was a myth that Emma's father owned Kickers, the shoe company, at a time when we all barely had [unstylish] Hamegaper footwear. [The truth is that Emma's father had a small television factory.] They brought a scent of Europe to a neighborhood where everyone was a civil servant and toed the line, loyal to the state and to the Labor Party, which was as far left as anyone could think of. They put up Sheli party posters along the stairs, and that was considered very extreme. There were photographs of Emma in the nude in their bedroom, and when they weren't home we, the children, would go in to look at them. I found it so bold and impossible and captivating. In my house nothing like that would have been conceivable."

Claude's final push into the arms of the left came in 1974, when he was summoned for reserve duty in Hebron. "Until then I knew about the occupation in general terms, but that was my first face-to-face encounter with it. I drove around the streets of the city for a month in a jeep, and it brought back images from the city of my childhood, St. Etienne, after it was occupied by the Germans. I am absolutely not comparing the Israeli occupation to Nazism, but the sights of an occupied city are very similar. It was clear to me that this was something that had to be stopped, and fast."

At the beginning of 1976, a few months before they became hostages, the Rosenkovitches took part in the struggle for the return of Hamzeh Natshe from exile. Natshe, a physician from Bethlehem, had wanted to run for mayor of the city but was expelled by the Israeli authorities for fear he would defeat the puppet candidate that Israel favored.

Claude Rosenkovitch: "I read in the paper that his wife, Louisette, was French, and I sent her a letter. Shortly afterward she called, and a warm friendship developed between the two families. We met with them frequently. They lived in Bethlehem, directly opposite Rachel's Tomb. We organized petitions and demonstrations calling for Natshe to be allowed to return home."

Applause for Idi Amin

In the summer of 1976, the Rosenkovitches decided to visit their parents in Paris for the first time with their children, Noam, who was 10, and Ella, who was five and a half. Danny, the eldest, a devoted "Shmutznik" - member of Hashomer Hatzair - stayed home in order to attend the Shomriya, the movement's annual event. In the course of checking in at the airport, on June 27, they were surprised to hear, from the Air France ground crew, that they would have a stopover in Athens.

Emma remembers that stopover: a large number of passengers en route from Arab states to Paris boarded the plane without going through any sort of check because of a strike by the ground service personnel at Athens airport. A few of the new passengers came on board carrying bags, which later turned out to be full of firearms. Emma remembers their rude behavior, which she remarked on to her husband. Claude remembers the moment of the hijacking vividly: "We heard a shout and quick running along the aisle. I thought that two people were quarreling, but suddenly we see the stewards turn as pale as snow, raise their hands and tell us: `Don't worry, it's nothing.' When they came close we saw that they had a pistol up against their backs.

"At this stage the hijackers declared that the plane would now be called `Haifa,' which was once an Arab city, and that they were demanding that Israel release dozens of Palestinian prisoners and Kozo Okamoto - the member of the Japanese Red Army who took part in a deadly terrorist attack at Israel's international airport in 1972. If Israel acceded to these demands, no one would be harmed, they said. They asked everyone to produce all identifying documents and warned that if anyone kept anything hidden, that would be very bad. Even though we had French passports, we didn't try to outsmart them and took out our Israeli passports, too."

They recall with a smile that they got to sit in the first-class section on that flight, as everyone with children on the plane was moved to the front of the aircraft, and they also remember the high-strung German woman who was forced to accompany the hijacked passengers to the lavatory. As the plane kept circling over the airport Benghazi, Libya, they started to wonder how much fuel it had left. After the plane landed in Libya, the hijackers gave everyone omelets. The Rosenkovitches say that the reality was not so terrible.

Emma: "First of all, I pitied them. There were two older Germans and two young Palestinians, who were barely 18 - they reminded me of Danny, my son. I had the feeling that they didn't actually know what they were doing. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, Noam remarked that our terrorists were relatively awfully nice. The option of suicide was never even considered."

Claude: "There were four of them altogether. One of them fell asleep in the seat in front of us. All we had to do was hit him over the head and take his weapon. But we didn't have the courage."

As peace activists who work jointly with Palestinians, didn't you feel that the hijacking was a slap in the face for you personally?

Emma: "No. The hijackers were from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which was always part of the rejection front. After all, they said from the beginning that they are against a settlement with Israel and that there is nothing to talk about from their point of view. It wasn't that someone we had cooperated with suddenly hijacked us. Besides, who did De Gaulle make peace with in Algeria, if not with Ahmed Ben Bella, whom he released from prison?"

The fact that they had two children to look after helped them preserve high morale.

Emma: "The most depressing thought was that we had taken the children into this situation, but it also strengthens you because even when you are frightened to death, you have to pretend that everything is fine. Ella largely repressed the situation and put on a pretense that everything was all right and that she was enjoying herself. At the end of the third day in Entebbe, Claude told the children he thought we would have to sleep there again that night, and Ella said, `What fun.' Noam was already old enough to understand exactly what was going on, and part of the time he was really depressed. All told, we believed it would end well, because before that there were a few hijackings that ended quite well. When we touched down at Benghazi I told the children we were in Africa, the continent they had read about in so many books."

At that stage they could not have imagined that the Benghazi episode was only the start of a long journey into the heart of the Black Continent. The next stop was Entebbe, in Uganda. "There, everything was already planned," Emma says. "We were received by a distinguished delegation of the PLO and of course by [Ugandan ruler] Idi Amin. It was an absurd sight. The Israeli government had maintained close relations with him in his first years in power. Israelis built the old terminal in which we were being held. The Ugandans who guarded us wore [Israeli] paratrooper boots and held Uzis."

Along with the criticism of the friendship that existed between Israel and the Ugandan dictator, Emma describes with pride the cohesive atmosphere that existed among the passengers: "The Israelis behaved like Israelis, and within a few hours the place had become a kibbutz. We collected books from all the families and started a library for the children. We organized makeshift activity groups. There was an art teacher who gave them lessons, and they sat and drew pictures. The secular people gave the religious people whatever food they could eat - bananas and rolls - and I was responsible for the medicines."

The cooperation notwithstanding, lively arguments also broke out among the passengers, such as over the attitude toward Idi Amin. Emma: "Approximately once a day he came to visit, dressed differently each time. Once he was a paratrooper, then he was something else. He told us stories about how concerned he was and how much he loved us, and that his daughter's name was Sharon, because she was conceived in the Sharon Hotel in Herzliya, when he visited Israel. Every time he came in, he said `Shalom' in Hebrew, and all the passengers applauded him enthusiastically. `Are you nuts,' I told them, `the man is a murderer.' They all said I was right, and the next time he came in and said `Shalom,' they clapped again."

Their spirits fell, they say, when they realized that the hijacking wasn't going to end quickly. On one of his visits to the group, Amin promised that he would send stewards with duty-free goods from the airport's new terminal, and he did. The Israelis fought over the goods, and one of the stewards said, "Don't fight, we'll come every week." On the third day the hijackers separated the bearers of Israeli passports from the other passengers.

"That was a very bad feeling," Emma recalls. "I started to envy prisoners who know how long they are inside for."

On the subject of the separation, the Rosenkovitches say they want to refute a myth that is recycled on official Web sites of the Israel Defense Forces, too: "It's always said that they separated Jews from non-Jews, like the `selections' in the concentration camps, but that's not true. Most of the passengers on the plane were Jews, and they released almost everyone who wasn't an Israeli. The exceptions were two ultra-Orthodox couples from Canada, whom they told to stay with us and weren't willing to listen to their pleas. They kept shouting, `But we are not Israelis, we are not Israelis,' and we felt a certain contempt for them, though I can certainly understand them."