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Arts & Culture in Book, Judge Says Israeli Attack Sinking U.S. Ship Was an Accident

In the cramped conference room of a Washington think tank, Judge A. Jay Cristol stares through glasses perched on the tip of his nose at a room full of skeptics.

He proceeds to lay out a detailed argument of what he believes happened to the USS Liberty on June 8, 1967, when it was sunk off the Sinai coast by Israeli planes and torpedo boats during the Six-Day War.

But Cristol doesn’t seem to care whether he convinces the skeptics.

“It’s a free country,” Cristol says; you can believe him, or not.

Israel always has said the attack, which killed 34 seamen and wounded 171, was a mistake. But some in the United States, including a group of survivors of the attack, say it was intentional.

Though they can find no motive for Israel to purposely attack the ship, they say the circumstances of the attack make it clear that Israel was targeting the United States.

But some independent reviews, including a recent documentary on the History Channel, suggest a deliberate attack by Israel. Survivors are seeking a congressional investigation to resolve the matter once and for all.

At a Middle East Institute forum in December, it didn’t take long to realize that Cristol, a Florida bankruptcy court judge, is in the accident camp.

His new book, “The Liberty Incident,” which will be released in paperback later this month, is the culmination of 10 years of doctoral research Cristol did at the University of Miami, which included more than 500 interviews and 3,000 documents.

Cristol became interested in the topic when an acquaintance suggested that his range of experiences — as a naval aviator, Navy lawyer and federal judge — qualified him to research the topic. The issue then became almost an obsession, he says.

Cristol’s review of U.S. and Israeli investigations led to the conclusion that the attack was an accident, the result of blunders on both sides that led Israel to believe it was attacking an Egyptian ship.

His book not only recounts the details of the attack — relying on interviews, documentation and testimony — it debunks many of the conspiracy theories that have been raised in the ensuing decades.

Among the theories is the claim that Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan ordered the attack, a claim that Cristol says lacks credibility because it originated with an unidentified informant and was never verified.

As an example of Cristol’s attention to detail, he shows a Life Magazine photo of Dayan taken on the day of the Liberty attack — when Dayan was out of communication — and notes that his wristwatch shows the photo was taken 17 minutes before the order to attack was given. Thus Dayan could not have given the order, Cristol concludes.

Most of the conspiracy theories are intended to create a rift between the United States and Israel, Cristol says.

“It’s just purely anti-Semitism and anti-Israel,” Cristol told JTA. “They don’t care what the facts are; they just want to present the idea that Israel did a dirty deed against the U.S.”

One book by a survivor of the attack, “Assault on the Liberty,” says the Liberty’s radio frequencies were jammed and that the boat was attacked for a prolonged period at close range, so the Israelis must have seen the ship’s flag and other markings that indicated it was American.

The book, by James Ennes, has been sent to college libraries to promote anti-Israel sentiment on campus, Cristol says.

Cristol also takes aim at another argument of the conspiracy crowd, who say the Liberty’s commanding officer, Capt. William McGonagle, was given the Congressional Medal of Honor privately at the Washington Navy Yard to avoid media attention on the day that other men received their medals at the White House.

However, Cristol starts his talk with an overhead transparency showing a letter he received from McGonagle, admitting that he misstated the day he received the medal.

It seems like a minor point, but it sets the tone for Cristol’s entire discussion: People make mistakes, people get information wrong.

“Whether or not I will convince any of you distinguished gentlemen of anything here today, I am at least pleased to point out that I was able to convince the skipper of the Liberty of one of the myths of this event,” he says proudly.

Cristol asks what motive Israel might have had for attacking the United States, but he can’t find any. Israel’s foremost objective during the Six-Day War was to fight off an existential attack, but after that its most important goal was not to upset the United States, its only ally.

“Why Israel would attack the United States under those circumstances does not make a lot of logical sense,” Cristol said. Therefore, he concludes, the only logical conclusion is that the attack was a mistake.

As he goes on, Cristol rarely steps back to address the big picture. Instead he goes detail by detail, showing holes in the theories that say the attack was deliberate.

From the audience questions, it’s apparent that many remain skeptical. One man asks how Cristol knows that the Israelis he spoke to, who corroborated the mistake theory, were actually participants in the attack.

Cristol responds that he took them at their word, the same way he took the questioner at his word when he says he is Joe Meadors, vice president and national director of the USS Liberty Veterans Association.

The answer does not seem to suffice.

“He admits he wasn’t able to verify that the people he talked to were participants,” Meadors says later.

Meadors and some of his peers who survived the attack on the Liberty say it couldn’t have been an accident. They claim the American flag was flying high and that the Israelis must have known whom they were attacking.

The History Channel documentary, “Cover Up: Attack on the USS Liberty,” was released in 2001. It backs the claim of some survivors that they were attacked without warning, and that federal inquiries have not probed the real cause of the Liberty attack.

Cristol and others dismiss the video as “anti-Semitic.”

Meadors was in Washington recently to lobby Congress to investigate the Liberty incident. Cristol says there have been at least a dozen U.S. inquiries into the attack, but Meadors says the Liberty remains the only military disaster that has not received a congressional inquiry.

Some lawmakers support his efforts, Meadors says, but none has cared enough about the issue to take the lead in pushing legislation demanding an inquiry.

Detractors say Cristol chooses the accident explanation because he is Jewish. Cristol tries to downplay his Jewishness — and his support for a strong U.S.-Israeli strategic relationship — to head off bias accusations.

“He’s apparently taken a position and listened to things that supported his position,” Meadors said. “He trashes those who disagree with him.”

Cristol knows that his book will not close the Liberty debate. His hope, he says, is to balance the “poison” of those who accuse Israel of a deliberate attack.

His book “is the antidote for the poison,” he says. “Hopefully, someone with an open mind will look at both” sides “and come to the right conclusion.”

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