A new documentary captures the life of Yoni Netanyahu, whose heroism may not appeal to our liberal friends.
OMG! If you go to see just one documentary in your recreational career — one solitary measly foray into film as real life — I have just the ticket. It is playing right now in Miami on a limited run and it is a sin to miss. If you live elsewhere pound on the doors of the local theater until they screen this gem. It is Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story.
Yes, quite that good without exaggeration. Your heart, your soul, your mind and your gut will be doing cartwheels and the bucket you empty of popcorn will be filled with hot tears.
Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu, late brother of the sitting Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, grew up as one of three sons of the recently deceased historian, Benzion Netanyahu. Benjamin in Hebrew means Son-of-the-Right, although the many Israelis who named their sons that were not choosing a political side, they were honoring the memory of Theodore Herzl, whose Hebrew name was Benjamin Zeev.
Yonatan in turn means “God gave,” implying a special gift to the generation, and the son of King Saul who first owned the name was a hero who won battles when vastly outnumbered, an unselfish person who put his friendship with David ahead of his own profit and a martyr who was killed in battle by the Philistines. It is hard to imagine a more apropos appellation for this remarkable young man.
Young Israelis are still familiar with Yoni’s story, less because of his military valor than because of his posthumously published diary and letters, which have enjoyed a wide popularity.
The Netanyahus were a traditional family who observed Jewish holidays, not religious but not anti-religious. This enabled them — similar to Menachem Begin and his children — to have rare crossover appeal in Israel. For example, Prime Minister Netanyahu is not Orthodox but is married to an Orthodox wife. The only other public figure to pull that off was Natan Sharansky. As a result, Israelis across the political and religious spectrum can appreciate Yoni’s letters. I recently heard a rabbi speak of how inspired he was by Yoni writing that he hoped at the end of his life to be able to account for every moment as well-spent.
The documentary combines readings from the letters with the story of the buildup to the raid at the airport in Entebbe, Uganda. Interspersed in there are interviews with friends, with an ex-girlfriend and an ex-wife, and a sketch of the high points of his biography. Amazingly, his father was still alive and lucid at age 100 during the filming two years ago, and his recall is razor-sharp.
We follow his life from early childhood in Israel to teenage years in Philadelphia, where his father assumed a professorship. Eventually the family all made their way back to Israel but he was the first. Along the way he spent a year doing a fellowship at Harvard. He had an inkling of devoting himself to scholarship like his father but he would not allow himself to shirk the call of duty. Before heading to the battlefield in 1967 he wrote: “Let it not be said that after thousands of years we Jews finally managed to reclaim our own land but we could not hold it for longer than twenty years.”
He was injured in that war but he would not allow his damaged hand to keep him out of the fray. He eventually came to command one of the most elite units, many of its missions comprised of secret sorties into enemy territory. He lived a quiet unassuming life as a hero, and he died heroically in one of the most daring escapades in modern military history.
Yoni commanded the team that landed in Entebbe, surprised the Ugandan army by driving a Mercedes similar to Idi Amin’s and eventually rescued 96 hostages, flying them back to Israel without injury. The only casualty was the head of the team, a leader who showed great confidence in his men; that confidence was rewarded by their completing their mission without a hitch.
The experience of seeing this film is astonishing, a multi-layered jamboree of the emotions. The liberal critics are panning it, because their bitter hearts and their shrunken souls are offended by its message. It reminds us that greatness is still possible, that loyalty is still a virtue and that history can only be advanced by those who are willing to give their lives. If I was you, I would give 87 minutes of yours; it will be time well spent.
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