Yoni Netanyahu, a hero, a nation

In the Day of Remembrance of all the Israeli soldiers and victims of wars and terror, I share this article on the letters written by Yoni Netanyahu, fallen during Entebbe Operation, which has just been published in Italian for the first time

No, Yonatan Netanyahu was not too perfect, too handsome and too good to be true. He was an Israeli hero, an Israeli. Yes, a very special man. In short, he was Israel. And to be Israel, you need to be a hero. In deed, he incarnated the quintessence of what this country is forced to be, as Yoni often wrote, in order to simply continue living.

He was also very good-looking and very generous, educated, thoughtful and mature beyond the measure of what permits to stand the death of a young man like him. All this makes the reading of his letters an exciting, exalting, certainly painful and yet joyful action.

What makes this new book so tough is to accept Yonatan’s death not only as the waste of a wonderful young life, but also to accept that his death represents an inescapable conclusion that follows the intertwining of his thought with an incredible passion for life, for culture, for love.

The reader feels that his war, still ongoing, would have deserved a happy ending, while instead Israel and the life of the Jewish population continues to be under siege from all kinds of Arab dangers as well as from odious western misunderstandings.

This and much more is in the small book by Michele Silenzi who has collected for Liberilibri  Yonatan Netanyahu’s “Letters” written in the years from 1963 to 1976, when he fell, barely 30, at Entebbe on July 4th. Silenzi writes just a few lines of introduction to each chapter: he understands that Yonatan’s tragedy is not an historical tragedy but a contemporary issue, not the tragedy only of Israel but of the whole world, even more so for those who fail to be aware of this.

Yoni was killed by a bullet as he commanded the Sayeret Matkal elite unit that rescued the Israeli hostages seized in flight by Palestinian and German terrorists (a match that I wish to highlight here), picked out among the many passengers and isolated at Entebbe airport, with the connivance of the Uganda dictator Idi Amin Dada.

All but three hostages were freed, and all of the Israeli soldiers but Yoni returned to their homes. Yonatan headed the assault running in front, guiding the team, worried only by the thought that every instant of delay would cost the life of the prisoners, and he was the only one killed.

It is one of the most exemplary and famous war stories of Israeli history: an impossible gesture made possible only through strong will, courage and despair. Yonatan didn’t rest for days as he prepared the rescue mission with the Chief of Staff Motta Gur, studying the details of the operation without ever taking time off to rest, falling into a short but deep sleep only as he was in the Hercules taking him to Entebbe together with his troops.

Like Hector who is preparing to fight Achilles, he knows his own valor, he is at peace after preparing everything and everyone, he has already tempted fate in thousands of dangerous missions, and he, still a boy, dedicates himself to supporting and encouraging each one of his boys as they sit, silent and tense, in the dark plane on the way to facing their destiny.

Yoni’s story is hard to bear because it is too true even today, because it is continuously alive in the hearts of the Israeli youth during their three years of military service. I have met many who walk in his footsteps, either consciously or unconsciously, following the road Yoni has indicated.

As a student in the USA, all he wishes is to come back home because, as he puts it, he “craves for Israel”, he loves without rhetoric his homeland that he know as indispensable to the contemporary Jewish identity; once back in Israel, he expresses over the years and in every letter he writes his great love for his family, for his historically famous father Ben Tzion, his mother and his two brothers Benjamin, today Israel’s prime minister, and Iddo. As a loving fiancé he writes letters to all: the girl he will marry and then divorce, and later thoughtful letters to Bruria, his companion in the years close to the end.

The narration, without ever a word of exaltation or of worry for his own life, touches upon a growing sequence of increasingly difficult war missions. As a journalist I have known the straightforward love that drives men and women to sacrifice their lives.

Over the years as I walked next to soldiers fighting in the 2006 Lebanese war, I have met men such as Commander Roi Klein who, as he shouted out the “Shemà Israel” prayer, blew himself up on a hand grenade to save his troops, or such as Tomer Bouhadana, photographed as he flashed the Victory sign while a medic held the vein of his neck closed to prevent him from bleeding to death, or such as the many in Gaza I heard ask to be sent back to their units after being severely injured.

And yet they are always young men who live their life with joy, with enthusiasm and with a love for life that is here a modus vivendi. Israel is forced to sketch the figure of the perfect hero just like Yonatan who doesn’t want war, who feels its immense sadness, but who, although tempted by the desire to study, to love, to live, to spend his time in enjoying the beauty of his homeland, is forced not only to continue fighting but to do so while thinking, philosophizing and even trying to be happy.

As I read the letters, I asked myself many times whether Yonatan was truly happy, because there is a price for so much risk and so much effort. Indeed, Yonatan suffered many wounds on his body ,during the wars, and in his soul, with the divorce and with the separation from his family and the agonizing loss of his friends in battle. He himself provides the answer, when at least twice he tells his loved ones that yes, he is happy, even if sometimes amidst words of discouragement, especially regarding the incapacity of part of the Jews to understand how things truly stand and to accept the Arabic rejection that that he sadly foretells to be definitive.

At thirty, Yoni’s beautiful face is already lined like that of a much older person. His expression is all sharp edges, and in his last letters he repeats something that I have often heard Israeli soldiers say: “I am so tired”. Someone told me that one never sleeps in the tzavà, to the point that many soldiers often fall asleep between one shot and the next. Israel is like Yoni: it can never sleep or take a breath, and not only because of its enemies.. and so it tries to recover its strength between one shot and the next, between one drop and the next of the malevolence raining upon it.

It is truly quite difficult to comprehend life in Israel using the normal parameters applied in journalism and in general in the contemporary narration of war. Yonatan’s tender, special love for Bibi, for example, is certainly difficult to understand for journalists who love to hate Israel’s Prime Minister who, not only in Yonatan’s words and in the history of wartime heroism, was his twin in spirit and comrade in arms, just like Iddo.

The word ‘hero’ is banished, the word ‘homeland’ is scorned, and I have no intention of making a sacred image of him. But in reading his letters, one understands a dramatic truth that grabs you by the throat, just like Yonatan’s death: if the contemporary world fails to understand Israel, it is forever lost; probably because of the grip of its cupio dissolvi probably brought on by its sense of guilt for World War II, it tries to bring down with itself the victim of its torment, the Jewish State.

This article originally appeared in slightly different form in Italian in Il Giornale (April 06, 2016)

About the Author
Fiamma Nirenstein is a journalist, author, former Deputy President of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, and member of the Italian delegation at the Council of Europe.