— by Hannah Lee
Anyone who’s been disappointed by the 1977 movie, Raid on Entebbe, will be captivated by the new documentary, Follow Me, which gives an account of the life and tragic early death of Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu, the commander of the rescue mission and the elder brother of Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel.
It’s a profile in courage and leadership, with the filmmakers having gotten unprecedented access to Yoni’s letters, both published and unpublished, family photos, and home movies. There are also interviews with former Israeli prime ministers Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres, the soldiers under Yoni’s command in the elite Sayeret Maktal (commonly known as “The Unit”), and even his ex-wife Tirza “Tutti,” who had never before agreed to speak about her relationship with Yoni.
More after the jump.
Fierce patriots, the Netanyahus spent some years in the United States — in our fair city — while their father, Ben-Zion, pursued scholarship at Dropsie College.* The father was professor of Hebrew language and literature, and later, chairman of the department, (1957-1966), and professor of medieval Jewish history and Hebrew literature. As a 16-year-old, Yoni arrived to attend Cheltenham High School in Wyncote, PA (where he was a classmate of Baseball Hall of Fame member Reggie Jackson). This is the reason Bibi Netanyahu speaks colloquial English with a Philly accent. In his letters, Yoni wrote about his discomfort with the expansiveness of homes in the United States and the carefree lives of his classmates, who cared only for cars and girls.
The Israel depicted in the documentary is the one we grew up with and our children are taught about in school — an ideal world with pioneers who fought for a dusty land and who wished only to be allowed to live in peace. The Netanyahu brothers came of age in a young nation that was subject to struggles for survival — in the epic wars of 1967 and 1973.
After his military service, Yoni returned to the U.S. to study at Harvard on scholarship, but he was troubled by the existential crises of his country and he returned to Eretz Yisrael as an officer in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Yoni was a leader who inspired his men by working alongside them. He never sent them to do anything he would not do himself.
Yoni Netanyahu is immortalized for leading the counter-terrorist hostage-rescue mission carried out by commandos of the IDF at Entebbe Airport in Uganda on July 4, 1976. On June 27th, an Air France plane with 248 passengers was hijacked by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the German Revolutionary Cells, and flown to Entebbe, near Kampala, the capital of Uganda. The passengers were sorted by ethnicity and country of origin– Jews and Israelis from the other passengers. That afternoon, 47 non-Israeli hostages were released. The next day, 101 more non-Israeli hostages were allowed to leave. More than 100 Israeli and Jewish passengers (along with the non-Jewish pilot, Captain Michel Bacos, who refused to leave his passengers) remained as hostages and were threatened with death.
The IDF acted on intelligence provided by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad. Israeli leaders decided on a covert rescue mission, while publicly agreeing to a release of military prisoners. The operation took place at night. Israeli transport planes carried 100 commandos over 2,500 miles to Uganda for the rescue operation. The operation lasted 90 minutes. They rescued 102 hostages. Five Israeli commandos were wounded and only one, their commander, Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, was killed. (According to Wikipedia, all the hijackers, three hostages, and 45 Ugandan soldiers were killed; 30 Soviet-built MiG-17s and MiG-21s of Uganda’s air force were destroyed. Twenty-four hours later, a fourth Israeli hostage was killed by Ugandan army officers at a nearby hospital.) The rescue mission, named Operation Thunderbolt, is now sometimes referred to as Operation Jonathan.
Like King David, Yoni Netanyahu was a courageous military leader and a sensitive poet. Yoni’s letters as voiced in the film make me mourn for the man he was. Yoni, we hardly knew you!
Jonathan Gruber is the writer, director, and producer and Ari Daniel Pinchot is also director and producer. Follow Me is being distributed independently and it’s making its rounds of film festivals. It’s being shown in the greater Philly area exclusively at the Bala Cinema in Bala Cynwyd. At press time, it’s not known if the engagement will be extended beyond Thursday, August 2nd.
*Rabbi Dr. Joel Hecker notes that the library collection of Dropsie College is now housed at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Dropsie College is now only known by its honorific, alav ha-shalom