Meeting Charles Njonjo, Long-Time Friend of the Jewish People

Written by Paul J. Blank on . Posted in Travel

In 2007, I attended a bar mitzvah at the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation in the capital city of Kenya. During the Torah reading, the gabbai called relatives and friends for aliyot by their Hebrew names. For one aliyah, however, the gabbai called the name “Charles Njonjo.”

 

An impeccably dressed and distinguished-looking African man came forward. The father of the bar mitzvah boy said the bracha (blessing), but clearly the honor of the aliyah was given to this guest. Afterwards, a proclamation was read aloud, thanking Njonjo for “rescuing the Jewish people during their hour of need.”

Who is Charles Njonjo, and why was he being honored? 

Njonjo — affectionately known as “Mzee,” (“The Elder”) — was the confidant of Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta, serving in his cabinet as the first African Attorney General. Njonjo was a key player in Kenya’s post-Independence story, later serving as chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Society. He remains an iconic personality, but Kenya’s Jewish community has a special appreciation for Njonjo for his role in the Israeli raid on Entebbe.

Njonjo’s actions helped ensure that the rescue succeeded, but his role was actually kept secret for four decades. It was Saul David’s 2015 book on the details of the raid, “Operation Thunderbolt,” which revealed the controversial deal Njonjo struck to allow Israeli planes to refuel in Kenya on their way back to Israel after freeing the hostages in Uganda.

On June 27, 1976, Arab and German terrorists hijacked an Air France flight en route from Tel Aviv to Paris. The plane was diverted to Entebbe Airport in Uganda, where the terrorists demanded the release of prisoners from Israeli, Kenyan, and European jails in exchange for the release of the 253 passengers and crew. Idi Amin, the Ugandan president, had advance knowledge of the hijacking and aided the terrorists.

Within a few days, Israel masterminded a raid that astonished the world. Three Hercules transport planes flew undetected 2,500 miles from Israel to Uganda. Israeli commandos stormed the airport building. After 35 minutes of battle — which claimed the lives of the seven hijackers, 20 Ugandan soldiers, three  of the hostages, and the raid commander, Yonatan Netanyahu — the remaining hostages were successfully evacuated by the Israeli team.

The transport planes needed a place to refuel on the way from Entebbe to Israel. Israeli intelligence officials had contacted Njonjo in advance of the raid and discussed the possibility of refueling at the Nairobi airport during a secret meeting in Njonjo’s home.

Only after the rescue operation began did Njonjo tell President Kenyatta that the Israelis wanted to refuel their planes on Kenyan soil. Kenyatta gave tacit approval, but he also made it clear that he would deny any knowledge, warning Njonjo: “If it goes wrong, you and the others will burn your fingers alone.” 

When Njonjo relayed the news, the Israelis asked what he wanted in return. Njonjo, concerned that Amin might attack Kenya in revenge for their involvement, requested that the Israelis destroy the Ugandan Air Force. He added that killing Amin would be a “bonus.” At the airport, the Israelis destroyed 11 MiGs, but did not find Amin.

After the rescue, the Kenyan government claimed there was no advance warning that the planes would land in Nairobi and they acted purely on a humanitarian basis. Amin was not appeased, and made threats against Kenya. Ultimately, the victims of Amin’s fury were ethnic Kenyans living in Uganda; hundreds were murdered and thousands were forced to flee.

Njonjo and the other Kenyans who collaborated with the Israelis could have been targeted by Amin, or even convicted of treason for withholding information from Kenyatta. What was their motivation?

In “Operation Thunderbolt,” David suggested that the Kenyans owed the Israelis a favor: In January 1976, Israeli intelligence officials gave the Kenyans information that an El Al plane was going to be attacked at Nairobi Airport. The plot was stymied and the terrorists were arrested. David also proposed that the Kenyans wanted to get even with Amin, who assisted these terrorists by allowing them to smuggle weapons from Uganda into Kenya.

During a visit to Kenya this summer, 10 years after the bar mitzvah where I first heard the gabbai call his name, I had the opportunity to speak with Njonjo himself.

At 97 years old, he’s still very active. We discussed his role in the Entebbe raid, and he spoke with passion as he shared his recollections; he even invited me to his home to show me where everyone sat at the table during the meeting with the Israelis.

I asked Njonjo why he agreed to help the Israelis, and his explanation differed from that provided in “Operation Thunderbolt.” At first Njonjo simply answered that it was “the humane thing to do.” When I asked him to elaborate, he shared that, as a young man studying in England, he had Jewish roommates whom he felt experienced discrimination. As an African growing up under colonial rule, Njonjo identified with the mistreatment of these Jewish students. In his words: “I saw myself as one of them.”

That sense of kinship remained with Njonjo and was the reason why, despite the risks, he felt compelled to play a crucial role in the Israeli raid on Entebbe.

This conversation ended a mystery that started for me at a bar mitzvah in a Nairobi synagogue, when the community showed its gratitude to Njonjo by giving him an aliyah and reading a proclamation of thanks.

Honors well-deserved.

By Paul J. Blank

 Paul J. Blank is a teacher at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (CESJDS) in Rockville, Maryland.