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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 2011, Pages 24-25

Special Report

Sailing 8,000 Miles to Hold a Memorial Service for USS Liberty Fallen, Survivors

By Larry A. Toenjes

altThe S/V Liberty at the site of Israel’s 1967 attack on its namesake, the USS Liberty . (Photo L. Toenjes)

I am writing this on my sailboat, the Liberty, in Larnaca, Cyprus. Just nine days ago, my crewmate Rusty Glenn and I were in the exact location, just off the Sinai Penninsula, where Israeli air and naval forces killed 34 Americans and wounded 174 others aboard the American ship USS Liberty. Although that attack occurred nearly 45 years ago, on June 8, 1967, it was never formally investigated by the U.S. Congress.

Israel said it was a "tragic mistake." The survivors say it was a deliberate attack. Lifeboats were shot up and stretcher-bearers on deck were machine-gunned. Those were very deliberate acts which Israeli authorities deny.

The attack occurred in international waters off the coast of Egypt while the Liberty was monitoring communications during Israel's Six-Day War, which it initiated against its neighbors.

Most Americans are unaware of that attack because the cover-up began even before the smoke had cleared, the wounded cared for, and the dead counted (see Assault on the Liberty by James M. Ennes, available from the AET Book Club, and <>)

The cover-up occurred because President Lyndon Johnson did not want to embarrass Israel, thus alienating the powerful Israel Lobby, which would then pour money into his opponent's campaign. Johnson, in an action that still outrages me, even recalled rescue flights!

The cover-up continues to this day, which is why I undertook this voyage.

Congress never formally investigated the incident because members of Congress are intimidated by the pro-Israel Lobby. That same Lobby picked up the travel expenses for 81 members of Congress to visit Israel this very summer, as I was sailing to the site of Israel's attack on the Liberty. Apparently new members need to be "oriented" before voting on the appropriation that gives Israel $8 million in American taxpayer dollars per day. Refusal to participate in the trip would mark a member of Congress as unfriendly to Israel, and the pro-Israel Lobby would work to defeat him or her in the next election.

As we approached the attack site the question as to whether we would encounter any opposition from the Israeli navy loomed ever larger. Not only were the killing of nine civilians aboard the Mavi Marmara last year and the jailing of the skipper of the U.S.-flagged Audacity of Hope earlier this summer on our minds, but another incident we were aware of also fed our anxieties. This involved a flotilla of several dozen sailboats that were visiting a number of countries in the Eastern Mediterranean. In all cases they had notified the countries in advance of their coming, filed crew lists and kept the relevant authorities apprised of their progress. Yet as they entered Israeli waters they were met by at least one armed patrol boat that circled them in an arrogant, menacing manner, pointing their machine gun at them as it did so. This was not a comforting experience.

To try to avoid such an incident we kept the Israelis fully informed of our intentions, through our communications with the U.S. naval attaché in Tel Aviv. He also kept the U.S. Sixth Fleet command informed of our presence. I asked him specifically if he could please tell the Israeli navy not to confront us in a hostile manner and point guns at us. After all, we were not challenging the Gaza blockade, we were in international waters, our intentions were peaceful.

Commander Palm, the U.S. naval attaché, responded to this request as follows:

Mr. Toenjes:

We have no indication that the INF would harass your vessel, based on your reported route to the point of interest and then onto El Arish.

Your coordination with us has allowed [us] to share your intended path for the cognizance of regional maritime authorities. This however is no guarantee of their behavior as sovereign forces operating in international waters. [underscore added]

The following is a response from the Sixth Fleet: "Sixth Fleet cannot guarantee the security of S/V Liberty. Sixth Fleet recommends that is [sic] S/V Liberty is concerned about its safety and security that it should return to its point of origin." [underscore added]

Best Regards and VR
CDR Rob Palm
Naval Attaché, U.S. Embassy
Tel Aviv, Israel

In other words, the fact that the U.S. gives Israel $3 billion each year does not impair Israel's right as a sovereign nation to threaten American citizens engaged in lawful, peaceful acts in international waters. The U.S. Sixth Fleet, in turn, can use its power to intimidate and coerce nations that offend Israel, but it may not use its force to protect Americans from the menace of Israeli military forces.

It is my contention that an awareness of the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty and the subsequent official cover-up of that incident provides an entry point into a more comprehensive understanding of the influence of Israel and the Israel Lobby on U.S. Middle Eastern policy in recent decades. Congress has not avoided an investigation into the Liberty incident merely because it would require a little time and effort. That investigation has not occurred because Israeli interests and the Lobby do not want it to occur. They do not want any such investigation for the same reason that they prefer that Americans do not have a clear picture of the reasons why there are some five million Palestinian refugees today. They do not want it known that there is a majority Jewish population in the State of Israel because of the ethnic cleansing that occurred during the foundation of that state. It is because of widespread public ignorance of these issues that members of the House or the Senate suffer no cost when they vote "yes" on the annual $3 billion in military aid to Israel, or when they sign letters of support for Israel, or when they vote for resolutions condemning the Palestinians for attempts to reclaim what was taken from them.

Drawing attention to the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty requires that the Lobby respond. The Lobby must defend official Israeli spokespersons who deny that the Israeli torpedo boats shot holes in the Liberty's life rafts, for example, as described by U.S. Navy crewmen who survived the attack.

Supporters of the veterans of the Liberty should ask their representatives in the House and Senate to sign letters calling for the investigation that never occurred. If they fail to sign the letter, that fact should be an issue in their campaign for re-election. Their opponents in their primary elections, and in their general elections, should make an issue of it and thereby support those U.S. servicemen who were the victims of the attack on their vessel

In undertaking this 8,000-mile voyage I merely wanted to exercise my right as an American citizen to proceed to a point in international waters where a grave injustice was perpetrated against U.S. sailors and express my dismay that that injustice is being extended by Congress' timidity.

Members of Congress never miss an opportunity to say to a U.S. service man or woman, "We thank you for your service!" But their service is not praised if doing so would embarrass the State of Israel, the pro-Israel Lobby, or diminish campaign contributions.

Laurence A.Toenjes, who received his doctorate in economics from Southern Illinois University, is retired from the University of Houston's Department of Sociology, where he was a researcher with The Sociology of Education Research Group.



Memorial Service for Victims of Israeli Attack on the USS Liberty at the Site of the Attack, 12 Miles off the Egyptian Coast, Sept. 8, 2011

The following is an excerpt from the statement read as part of our memorial service at the site of the attack on the USS Liberty as we attempted to honor those who were killed there.

We are here to commemorate the lives of those who died at this spot on June 8, 1967 in an attack by Israeli air and naval forces.…

I did not personally know the 34 men who died aboard the USS Liberty in 1967. I don't even remember hearing about the attack on the Liberty at the time it happened. It was lost in the dramatic news of Israel's stunning victories in the Six-Day War. But just as the consequences of that war are still being felt, so, too, are the consequences of the Israelis' air and sea attack on the Liberty.

It may never be determined exactly why Israeli fighter jets and torpedo boats attacked the Liberty. If it were indeed a tragic case of mistaken identity, as the Israeli government has always claimed, it would nevertheless have been an embarrassment to that nation. If it were a deliberate attack on an identified U.S. ship, as survivors and high U.S. officials maintain, it would also have been an embarrassment because the courageous men of the USS Liberty refused to let their ship sink. It remained afloat, stark testimony to the brutal attack that had occurred.

Therefore, no matter the cause, the incident was an embarrassment to Israel and showed it to be, at minimum, an unreliable ally. For U.S. domestic political reasons, the president of the United States, his administration, and subsequently Congress did everything possible to hush it up, indeed to cover it up. There may be legitimate debate about the reason for the attack, but there is no debate about the cover-up that followed.

The cover-up had enormous consequences. For the men who survived the attack, the cover-up signaled to them that their government did not value them. It told them that their own observations made during the Israeli attack on their ship were irrelevant, that the truth of the matter was less important than the next presidential and congressional elections.

For the Israelis, the cover-up sent the message that they could act in any way they pleased and the U.S. would support them.…

As I became aware of the lock that the pro-Israeli interests have upon our presidents and Congress relative to Middle East policy, I realized that I must add my voice to those who decry this state of affairs. Eventually, I realized that the place where I could make my voice best heard was the very spot where those 34 American voices were silenced, and where the cover-up that silenced those who survived the attack began.

For decades now, survivors Joe Meadors, Jim Ennes, Phil Tourney and many others have sought to get Congress to formally investigate the attack on the USS Liberty, to put them under oath and take their testimony. Such an investigation has not occurred. These men have not been heard.

This voyage to the site of the attack was undertaken as a way to pay respect to those who were killed and to demonstrate to those who survived that they are not forgotten.…

[W]e have sailed some 8,000 miles, to the spot where the USS Liberty was attacked on June 8, 1967, and to tell our fellow citizens, and citizens everywhere, that that incident is not forgotten. We urge a new willingness to let the remaining survivors of that attack have their day in Congress, to testify as to events that day, under oath, to the best of their ability. Let Congress thank these men for their service by having the decency to listen to them at last, before all of them, too, have died. Stop the cover-up.

It is my impression that the one other official act that would do the most to heal the wounds of the survivors of the attack on the USS Liberty, and to pay respect to those who died, would be for the Congressional Medal of Honor that was awarded to their skipper, Commander William L McGonagle, to be re-issued by President Barack Obama. He should do so personally and publicly, and this time the ceremony should be held in the White House itself, rather than in an obscure location elsewhere. We urge all Americans, especially U.S. veterans, to support this request. I supported, and still support, President Obama. I call on him to support the men of the USS Liberty.… —L.A.T