The hijacking of TWA Flight 847 has produced a side issue here that illustrates both the power of television and the powerful memory of the Holocaust.
Last Tuesday night, amid reports that passengers on the hijacked aircraft with Jewish-sounding names had been separated from the other hostages, state-run Israeli television broadcast a report that left the strong impression that a German-born flight attendant on the plane cooperated with the hijackers in this "selection" process. The television report included a portion of a news conference last Sunday night by freed crew members of the plane.
In this country of thousands of Holocaust survivors, and thousands more who lost relatives and friends to the Nazis' "final solution," the reports that Jews had been singled out for special treatment produced a wave of anger and revulsion. This was compounded by the widespread impression left by the television report that Uli Derickson, the plane's purser and a citizen of West Germany, had helped the hijackers pick out the Jews.
Avraham Sharir, Israel's tourism minister, reportedly fired off a message to TWA demanding an investigation of Derickson's conduct. There was highly critical comment in the Israeli press, and expressions of outrage from ordinary Israeli citizens encountered on the streets of Jerusalem. A small protest demonstration was held this week outside TWA's office in Tel Aviv.
Today, Shlomo Avineri, a prominent political science professor at Hebrew University, said he and several of his colleagues also had asked TWA to investigate what happened during the first hours of the hijacking. He said they were not "condemning" Derickson before all the facts were known but were seeking a "clarification" of her role and wondered why TWA had not brought her back before the press to answer more questions.
The full story of Flight 847 is not likely to be known until the hostage drama is over, but since the television broadcast here, evidence has accumulated that Derickson did not cooperate with the hijackers. TWA has denied categorically that she played any role in picking out passengers with Jewish-sounding names and described her as "a heroine" in the ordeal.
Prime Minister Shimon Peres, in a speech today to the Zionist General Council here, also appeared to exonerate her of any misconduct. "We are shocked by the separation that was carried out, evidently not by the stewardess, but by the hijackers themselves, between Jews and non-Jews, or more accurately, between persons with Jewish- and non-Jewish-sounding names," he said.
Since the reports about passengers with Jewish-sounding names surfaced, sources in Washington have raised the possibility that the passengers taken off separately actually were U.S. military personnel.
And Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum of the American Jewish Committee said today in New York that Derickson "has gotten a bum rap."
It is clear from conversations with Israelis, however, that the impression left by the television broadcast, which was reinforced by subsequent news reports and editorial comment, has not been diminished. To thousands of Israelis, Uli Derickson is a tall, blonde German who helped two Arab terrorists select the flight's Jewish passengers for special treatment.
In the key section of the Sunday night news conference that was broadcast here, Derickson gave this description of what happened on the plane:
"I established a good rapport. Two hijackers spoke fluent German, and I communicated between them and the cockpit. They asked me to look at every passport and asked me to give them passports with Jewish-sounding names.
"I collected every passport. I had 145 passports. I personally took the first people off in Beirut when I dropped the emergency exit slide."
In response to a question, Derickson said she did not know what happened to the passengers with Jewish-sounding names. "How many were there that you picked out with Jewish-sounding names?" she was asked.
"Six or seven, I believe," she replied.
TWA officials say the impression left by this exchange resulted because Derickson did not hear the word "you" in the question about how many passengers with Jewish-sounding names were separated from the others. In later questioning during the news conference, she was asked directly whether she had picked out the names.
"No," she replied, "that was done by the terrorists. They looked at the passports." This later exchange during the news conference was not broadcast by Israeli television.
Yesterday, two days after the Israeli television broadcast, Israeli radio's English-language service broadcast a report on a meeting among U.S. government officials, American Jewish leaders and TWA representatives.
Jonathan Schacter, a special correspondent in New York for Israel's state-run radio, reviewed the controversy, including TWA's assertion that Derickson did not hear the word "you" in the first key question and her subsequent flat denial during the news conference that she picked out the passports with Jewish-sounding names. Schacter's report also included an interview with Jerry Cosley, TWA's vice president for public affairs, who said:
"We're convinced now at TWA, as are other responsible, U.S. government parties that are interested in all aspects of the hijacking, that that answer did not reflect her actions; that in fact it was the terrorists who went through the passports and attempted these arbitrary identifications, whether they were Greek or military or Jews; and that her role in that was an attempt to reason with them -- that you can't look at a person's name and determine their religious preference or ethnic origin or anything.
"This has been verified by other interviews with other people involved, other hostages and crew members, so unequivocally TWA has satisfied itself that this woman is, in fact, a heroine."
Israeli radio's four daily English-language broadcasts reach only a fraction of the country's population, and Schacter's report, suggesting that Derickson may have played a far different role in the hijacking, clearly has had little impact on the impression left by the television news broadcast, to which most Israelis tune in nightly.
Among those left with that impression is Menashe Rez, a news editor who handled Tuesday night's television broadcast. Rez noted that the portions of the New York news conference that were broadcast here included use of the word "selection," a powerful reminder of the selection process used by the Nazis against the Jews, and that Derickson had been identified during the broadcast as a German. "German and selection. Put those words together and you have the connotation," he said.