The US, the fate of liberty, and the fate of the USS Liberty

The Jewish world, together with supporters of the Zionist dream beyond our communal borders, find ourselves in heady times as we celebrate the fiftieth anniversaries of the liberation of Jerusalem and the Israeli victories of the 1967 Six Day War.

We look ahead with grateful wonder to the coming year’s seventieth anniversary of the State of Israel’s founding. We have much to celebrate and good reason for thanksgiving. Each new day seems to recall further details of perilous, decisive, and, one might say, miraculous events now half a century past.

One historic anniversary associated with that remarkable period, however, is far from cause for celebration. On June 8, 1967, Israeli military forces launched a devastating attack on the USS Liberty, a “technical research ship” belonging to the United States Navy, in international Mediterranean waters north of the Sinai Peninsula. The Liberty was torpedoed, strafed with machine-gun and cannon fire, and set aflame with napalm bombs. The attack killed 34 Americans, wounded 171 crew members, and left a hole in the ship 39 feet by 24 feet wide. It has been reported that a number of Jews, specifically assigned to the Liberty because of their facility with the Hebrew language, were among the American casualties.

The Liberty incident represents the most perilous moment in the historic, strategic, and diplomatic relationship between the State of Israel and the United States. It also represents the nightmare scenario for American Jews, as citizens both fiercely loyal to the United States and profoundly committed to the Jewish state.

The causes of the attack are a matter of considerable historical debate and mystery. Israel contacted American authorities immediately after the incident, explaining that the Liberty had been mistaken for an Egyptian warship, that it was believed (admittedly in error) to have been shelling strategic Sinai positions in advance of an invasion force designed to flank Israeli forces. Army Chief of Staff Yitzchak Rabin, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol explained that standing orders to attack any unidentified warship in the area had been issued, and that a series of errors and the fog of war had led to the tragic and lethal attack on Israel’s American allies. Israeli authorities conveyed abject formal apologies for the attack to the American administration. President Lyndon B. Johnson accepted the Israeli apology and explanation. In fact, he devoted little attention to the tragedy in his memoirs, going so far as to under-report casualty numbers.

Not all Americans were as sanguine about Israeli expressions of remorse. Rear Adm. Isaac Kidd, senior officer in the American Naval Court of Inquiry investigating the attack, reportedly referred to the Israelis responsible for the attack as “murderous bastards.” Capt. Ward Boston, senior counsel of the Court of Inquiry, described the incident as “a deliberate effort to sink an American ship and murder its entire crew.” Secretary of State Dean Rusk insisted that Israel had confirmed the identity of the Liberty, and its American status, fully an hour before the attack, which, he said, evinced “reckless disregard for human life.” The official policy of the USS Liberty Veterans Association is to consider the attack as deliberate. Some Americans speculated that the attack was occasioned by American jamming of Israeli communications, or by fear that the Liberty would compromise Israeli intelligence regarding the Golan campaign at a point when the Jewish state’s very survival was at stake.

Thankfully, the president’s response prevailed, and for the most part it has defined history’s perspective on the attack on the USS Liberty. It is impossible to determine if LBJ’s stated perspective reflects his actual beliefs, or if it is grounded in self-sacrificing and calculated realpolitik (like the facts of the incident itself). The 36th president’s words, however, speak volumes as to his attitude toward the Jewish state: “America and Israel have a common love of human freedom, and they have a common faith in a democratic way of life.” Whatever Johnson truly believed, and whatever the facts, he did not allow the attack on the Liberty to derail a critical alliance at the height of the Cold War.

In addition to explanations and apologies, Israel also placed a memorial to the Liberty’s American casualties in its Naval Museum. The plaque lists their names and bears an inscription in Hebrew: “We express deep sorrow for the 34 friends who died at our hands, in a battle that was not theirs, aboard the USS Liberty, June 8, 1967… May their memory be a blessing!”

The inscription is poignant in its acknowledgement of responsibility (they “died at our hands”) and in its description of American military personnel as “friends” of Israel. The assertion that the Liberty’s crew members lost their lives “in a battle that was not theirs” (b’krav lo la-hem), however, is far more unsettling. It is true that Israel, like any sovereign nation, bears ultimate responsibility for its own defense. It is true, too, that the United States had established its official neutrality during the 1967 war, rendering the conflict “a battle that was not theirs.” Yet this phrase, memorializing the lamentable events of 50 years ago, also conveys a subtle moral indictment. Israel’s daily fight against terror, against explicit threats of annihilation and genocide, are rightfully America’s battle as well. American claims of neutrality in 1967 or in 2017 are not a defense; they are a statement of moral failure and culpability.

This principle was never stated more forcefully or clearly than by William J. Bennett, former U.S. Secretary of Education, in his book “Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism.”

“Our essential kinship with Israel is… a deep-rooted feeling of linked destinies, a feeling that echoes back to our founding and to the birth of freedom which our fathers identified with the biblical Israelites’ emergence from the darkness of bondage. And I believe it also has to do with an understanding, almost religious in nature, that to our two nations above all others has been entrusted the fate of liberty in the world.”

On the anniversary of the attack on the USS Liberty, it behooves us, too, to contemplate “the fate of liberty in the world,” as Secretary Bennett so aptly framed the issue. That battle certainly is ours, wherever it may manifest itself. In that continuing battle, neutrality is no virtue.

Fifty years later, the attack on the U.S.S. Liberty presents all thoughtful Americans — American Jews among them — with a series of compelling lessons and daunting challenges:

How critical it is that the president of the United States be a person of selfless moral clarity, who is aware of and responsive to the weight that a president’s words and example carry, especially in times of conflict and loss of life.

How critical it is that the president of the United States respond to crises and set-backs and perceived offenses (personal and national) out of measured principle, nuanced deliberation, and historic sensitivity, rather than with raw emotion, egocentric self-interest, or the short-term gains of political posturing.

How critical it is that American leaders — both civilian and military — understand the sacred trust of safeguarding intelligence provided and secured by our allies.

How critical it is to acknowledge that America’s allies are many, and consequently our battles are many. In addition to the state of Israel, the United States has longstanding mutual defense commitments to 27 NATO allies. It ultimately is un-American to define those battles too narrowly, or to treat those commitments as negotiable or as blunt instruments of financial leverage. Early American statesman Henry Clay articulated the principle in terms particularly resonant on the anniversary of the Liberty attack: “I prefer the troubled ocean of war… to the tranquil, putrescent pool of ignominious peace.”

More to the point, on this historic anniversary, as we contemplate both “the fate of liberty” and the fate of the U.S.S. Liberty, we affirm that Israel’s battle is our own. We do well to remember Secretary Bennett’s closing words of counsel:

“Keeping faith with the people of Israel in their still unfinished confrontation with evil is, to me, a species of keeping faith with ourselves; breaking faith, a species of self-abnegation. It is exactly that simple, and exactly that difficult, and exactly that consequential.”

May all Americans be privileged to celebrate Israel’s 70th Independence Day free from the fog of war, and blessed with the principled moral clarity, mutual esteem, recognition, and support that worthy alliances demand.

About the Author
Joseph H. Prouser is rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey (Franklin Lakes, NJ) and a practicing Mesader Gittin. A former member of the Joint Bet Din of the Conservative Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, he currently serves as editor of Masorti: The New Journal of Conservative Judaism.
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