From 1981
(William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History)

The story of the “Operation Opera” and its impact upon the Middle East can be followed in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History.

I recently wrote about Israel’s spectacular rescue mission at the Entebbe airport in 1976. It was a memorable, historic operation that inspired movies, books and massive worldwide recognition. Five years later, on June 7, 1981, Israel conducted another dramatic raid — “Operation Opera” — an event with a far-reaching impact.

“Operation Opera” was a preemptive strike that destroyed the Osirak nuclear plant in Iraq. Eight Israeli fighter jets flew more than 2,000 miles to bomb and destroy the unfinished reactor. It was a most dangerous mission: The pilots were not sure they would safely return to Israel. Last month, the IDF archive opened additional documents related to the strike, including the rough sketches that were drawn for the fighter pilots to simulate what they would see upon reaching the reactor. Effective enough but hardly like the hi-tech images the IDF uses today.

The story of the strike and its impact upon the Middle East can be followed in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History. 

The headline on the front page of the June 12, 1981, issue of the JN reads “Israel Staunchly Unanimous on Right to Pre-Emptive Raid.” Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin acknowledged the strike as an act of self-defense, that it was “now or never.” Moreover, he stated that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein would have had “no hesitation” at dropping “three or four or five” nuclear bombs on Israel. 

The JN’s editorial on July 7, 1981, was “The Honor of Self-Defense.” It began with “Israel rendered such an immense service to humanity with the Osirak bombing that the occurrence will continue to dominate international discussions.” It was an accurate assessment.

Initially, the raid was condemned internationally by media and politicians around the globe. But the June 19, 1981, headline in the JN was “Reagan Concedes Israel Raid Was a Sincere Defensive Act.” President Ronald Reagan added: “It is difficult for me to envision Israel as being a threat to its neighbors.”

Begin did set a significant precedent. Under an existential threat since its founding, Israel would take whatever measures it thought prudent to protect itself.

Begin’s decision is still relevant years later. For example, see “Deterrent” (Sept. 20, 2007, JN). This analysis addresses the question, “Was the Israeli Strike in Syria a repeat of the 1981 Osirak hit?” Israel had attacked a Syrian nuclear reactor on Sept. 5-6, 2007. Thirty years ago, Helen Davis wrote “Nuclear Explosion” about the Islamic quest for an atomic bomb (Oct. 4, 1991). Or see the essay “Bomb Iran?” (Dec. 15, 2005). The Iranian pursuit of nuclear capability is still a hot and serious topic.

Davie Ivry, commander of the IDF in 1981, who directed the airstrike on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, reached a conclusion that still rings true: “You cannot eliminate an idea, a national will. But you can delay progress on a nuclear program with the appropriate military action.” 

After seeing the effects of the Iran/Iraqi war, Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq, the actions of Syrian leaders, and Iran’s promotion of terrorism with the goal of destroying Israel, Ivry and Begin clearly understood the reality of living in Israel’s neighborhood. And, the production of nuclear arms is no longer just a local issue.

Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.

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