Today, as Americans celebrate July 4th, here in Israel we remember that on America’s bicentennial, Yonatan Netanyahu and the IDF troops in Uganda on July 4th, 1976 reminded us of the importance of having a Jewish State and what we fight for.
The scene at Zionist summer camps across the Diaspora and indeed all over the Jewish world and in Israel itself transformed from anxiety over the fate of the hostages to ecstasy at their miraculous rescue. The tremendous outpouring of joy was tinged with sadness at the loss of Yoni z”l, the commander of the mission.
Forty-seven years ago today elite Israeli commandos, led by 30-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu rescued over a hundred hostages from Entebbe, more than 2,000 miles from Israel, in a daring operation that stunned the world. The only military casualty of the operation was its planner and leader on the ground, Yoni himself, who died as he had lived, leading from the front.
After the bitter-sweet success of the operation, renamed “Operation Yonatan” in his honor, his family decided that rather than build another memorial in a country that has all too many, they would publish his writings in order to share with the world the kind of dedication, selflessness, and love of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel which were the hallmarks of Yoni’s all too short, but meaningful life.
Reading these letters, recently republished by Gefen Press, as a young teenager in South Africa changed the trajectory of my life. They strongly contributed to my Aliya after high school and my decision to serve in a combat unit in the IDF. As a 16-year-old, an age at which most of his contemporaries were focused on members of the opposite sex and parties, Yoni penned what were to be the guiding principles of his life:
Man does not live forever, and he should put the days of his life to the best possible use. He should try to live life to its fullest…I must feel certain that not only the moment of my death shall I be able to account for the time I’ve lived; I ought to be ready at every moment of my life to confront myself and say—This is what I’ve done.
Yoni’s letters are thought-provoking, profound and unapologetically Zionist. The way we were taught Jewish history in our day school in the Diaspora was similar to the old Jewish joke, that all Jewish holidays are the same: “They came to kill us. We fought. We won. Let’s eat.” On Passover, a year before his death, Yoni penned an unusual love letter to his girlfriend Bruria. In it, he wrote that Judaism wasn’t all about death, destruction, slaughter and food, but rather:
The idea of freedom remained, that hope persisted, that the flame of liberty continued to burn through the observance of this ancient festival, is to me testimony of the striving for freedom and idea of freedom in Israel.
In this search through our past we come upon other periods-of tranquility and liberty, when we were the people of the land as well as the people of the book.
Yoni reminded us that Israel is the hub around which the Jewish world revolves. He also taught us as Jews that if we want to get anything done for our own benefit we can only rely on ourselves. It is not enough to yearn, pray and hope as the “People of the Book,” but rather Judaism’s natural state is also as the “People of the Land.”
The miracle of our return to our land was not brought about passively, but by the actions of the pioneering youngsters, who reclaimed our land one tree at a time, revived our language one Hebrew word at a time, and continue to reclaim Jewish honor and pride through defending our Jewish homeland, and if necessary, are prepared to give those very lives to defend the hope (Hatikvah) of two thousand years, “to be a free people in our land.” May Yoni’s memory and deeds continue to be for a blessing!