By Tammy Obeidallah
Within the United States, there has been a growing awareness of Palestinian suffering. This has been manifested in the many demonstrations held during Israel’s assault on Gaza from December 2008-January 2009. The boycott of Israeli goods is gaining speed, as well as the campaign to recognize the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians as apartheid.
Yet there is one tragic and shameful event in particular which serves to discourage Palestinian rights activists. If so-called “patriotic” Americans viciously suppress the concerns of veterans and their families by covering up the murder of their own sailors, what hope is there to recognize the voices of oft-maligned Arabs half a world away?
June 8 will mark the 43rd anniversary of the heaviest attack on an American ship that inflicted the highest number of casualties since World War II. The USS Liberty was an intelligence vessel, patrolling international waters in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.
The day was clear and sunny; the ship flying the American flag, as was standard. Suddenly and simultaneously, out of that clear azure sky and sea came a two-pronged attack by Israeli air and naval forces. Napalm, gunfire and missiles rained hell on Liberty’s crew for two hours while Israeli torpedo boats closed in.
In that two hours, 34 American sailors died. Another 172 were injured.
The Liberty crew managed to send an SOS, heard by nearby U.S. Sixth Fleet aircraft carriers. Fighter planes launched immediately, however turned back on orders from President Johnson. Naval personnel listening to radio relays heard Johnson say “I don’t care if the ship sinks, I’m not going to embarrass an ally.”
Israel claimed it was a case of “mistaken identity,” in other words, “friendly fire.” Israel’s ludicrous explanation was that pilots thought the USS Liberty was El Quseir, an Egyptian vessel having 1/4 of Liberty’s displacement and half the beam. El Quseir was 180 feet shorter and very differently configured. The Liberty had her name clearly written in English, while the Egyptian ship would have displayed Arabic script.
There are several motives for Israel’s deliberate attack: to prevent the USS Liberty from transmitting intelligence pertaining to massacres by Israeli troops which were taking place in the Golan Heights and that the 1967 War did indeed result from a pre-emptive strike by Israel. The attack could have been used to draw the U.S. into the 1967 War as well. Most of the Liberty’s survivors believe that Israel’s goal was to sink the ship and kill everyone aboard. Had there been no survivors, the attack could have been pinned on an Arab country.
Ward Boston, Jr., himself a U.S. Navy veteran, was the chief legal counsel to the Navy Court of Inquiry investigating the USS Liberty attack. In an editorial published by The San Diego Union Tribune, Boston stated then President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara ordered the Navy Court of Inquiry to conclude the attack was accidental. Furthermore, the late Admiral Isaac C. Kidd, the Court of Inquiry’s president, was given only one week to gather evidence for the investigation, although a proper inquiry would have taken six months.
“We boarded the crippled ship at sea and interviewed survivors. The evidence was clear. We both believed with certainty that this attack was a deliberate effort to sink an American ship and murder its entire crew,” Boston wrote. “I saw the bullet-riddled American flag that had been raised by the crew after their first flag had been shot down completely.”
For the official record, Admiral Kidd was ordered to rewrite part of the Court’s findings, including striking Lt. Lloyd Painter’s testimony in which he stated three life rafts filled with seriously wounded sailors were gunned down at close range by Israeli torpedo boats.
Survivors of the USS Liberty attack, their families and the families of those killed have demanded a fair congressional inquiry, to no avail. To this day, survivors have never been allowed to testify publicly. Nor have intelligence officers who received real-time Hebrew translations of Israeli commanders ordering pilots to sink “the American ship.”
The cover-up did not stop at the official report: it extended to commemorations honoring USS Liberty survivors and crew members’ memorials alike. The USS Liberty’s Commander, William L. McGonagle was awarded the Medal of Honor in a quiet ceremony at the Washington Navy Yard, not in the customary White House setting.
In 1987, the town of Grafton, Wisconsin proposed naming a new $1 million library–to be built with private donations and an $83,000 federal contribution– The USS Liberty Memorial Library. Days later, Jewish community leaders decried the proposal as “anti-Semitic.” An angry letter from a local rabbi, Gideon Goldenholz, stated the name was “insulting to Jews.” Not surprisingly, the $83,000 federal money was put on hold. Even the priest at Grafton’s Catholic Church came out in opposition to the name, stating “The USS Liberty has become a symbol of hate.” The Milwaukee Jewish Council attempted to block the name and there were several picketers at the groundbreaking ceremony. The USS Liberty Memorial Library was finally dedicated in 1989 after two years of battling well-organized opposition.
Shortly after the library’s completion, Congressman Andy Jacobs (D-IN) inserted an essay entitled “The USS Liberty, 1967-89,” written by former Congressman Pete McCloskey (R-CA) into the Congressional Record. McCloskey pointed out that the dedication of the memorial with the names of the 34 dead was the first public recognition of their service in the 22 years since the attack.
The greatest sacrilege, however, is that these 34 crew members’ tombstones are engraved “…died in the Eastern Mediterranean,” rather than “killed in action.”
There is little hope of real policy change in a country where citizens would denigrate their own veterans, both living and dead, in order to protect a state where perpetrating war crimes is commonplace.