A National Celebration, a Personal Tragedy

Yoni Netanyahu Wasn't the Only One Who Died at Entebbe. Why Have We Forgotten the Others?

The operation was a success – but three of the 105 Israeli hostages who were hijacked to Uganda in 1976 died while it was carried out. A new film looks at the silence that enveloped the family of one of them for more than 35 years.

Robert Maimoni watched the excited, jubilant crowd on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion International Airport. His lucidity had been somewhat blunted by the sedative he had been injected with a few minutes earlier; nonetheless, despite the drug-induced fog, Maimouni managed to painfully whisper to his wife Lola and his daughter Martine a sentence that he would constantly repeat for the rest of his life: “They are celebrating while I am crying.”

Maimoni was observing the moments of national ecstasy that were generated by Operation Entebbe. On July 4, 1976, a commando unit of the Israel Defense Forces rescued 105 of the passengers of an Air France airliner Israeli citizens whose plane had been hijacked by terrorists a week earlier, and ended up in Entebbe, Uganda.

This was a heroic and an unprecedented commando operation that was carried out with an amazing degree of success and which quickly developed mythical proportions. Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, the commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal operations force that carried out the operation, and whose brother Benjamin would later become prime minister, was killed in the rescue mission; he has become a part of Israel’s pantheon as a model of heroism.

Within a remarkably short period, three big-budget movies depicting the events of Operation Entebbe were produced; they featured Hollywood’s most prominent stars, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Charles Bronson and Anthony Hopkins, to name but a few of the actors in the starring roles. The event also inspired numerous books and studies that have praised its successful culmination. Like other major historical events, Operation Entebbe has been engraved in the collective memory as a truly great Israeli moment.

However, those who were not saved by this rescue operation have been almost totally forgotten. Virtually nothing was said about the circumstances in which these individuals died. Their memory has almost completely faded and little mention is even made of their names, with the exception of Dora Bloch, who was murdered in a hospital in Kampala, where she had been taken from the passenger terminal where the Israelis were being held when she became ill. The three other hijacked persons who did not survive the raid were Pasco Cohen, Ida Borochovitch and Jean-Jacques Maimoni, the young son of Robert and Lola Maimoni.

“Live or Die in Entebbe,” a new film directed by Eyal Boers, examines the rescue operation from a new angle. In the documentary, which was screened last Monday on Israel’s Channel 1, Boers accompanies Jean-Jacques Maimoni’s nephew, Yonatan Khayat, on a personal journey of reconstruction that is complemented by many eyewitness testimonies. The movie focuses on the week during which the Air France passengers were held as hostages by the terrorists.

Khayat, who was born in Paris two months before Operation Entebbe, never met his uncle. In fact, Jean-Jacques, who was 19 at the time, was traveling from Israel to France that June, in order, among other reasons, to see his newborn nephew. The circumstances of Jean-Jacques’ death were never before discussed publicly by his family; when they finally spoke, some very bitter feelings emerged.

Robert Maimoni died in 2011, a year before the film was produced. Though this was 35 years after the hijacking, Khayat reveals in the film that Maimoni never understood how precisely his son was killed. The official reason given to the family was that he had died as the result of an asthma attack, although Jean-Jacques was killed by Israel Defense Forces gunfire.

It’s almost pure happenstance, recalls Boers, that the documentary was made at all: “Yonatan [Khayat] and I had known each other for a long time; we became friends at Tel Aviv University. About 10 years ago, we took a trip to the Netherlands where, during one of our excursions, he mentioned that a memorial was soon to be held for his uncle, who had been killed in Entebbe. Even though we were old friends, he had never mentioned to me that his uncle died at Entebbe. Yonatan’s uncle was not a member of the Netanyahu or Bloch family and I didn’t know anything about other people whether the rescuers or the rescued having died in the raid. Yonatan said that his family never talked about the matter. When I asked him how Jean-Jacques had died, he said the family didn’t know precisely what had happened.

At the time, Boers was completing his studies toward a master’s in film and television at Tel Aviv University. Khayat, at Boers encouragement, tried to promote an investigative journalistic report or a film about his uncle but his initiatives proved unsuccessful, and the ideas were put aside. A few years later, Boers came out with his first documentary about the classmates of Anne Frank. It is a film that focuses on an historical event and explores the myth of Anne Frank; it was screened in both Israel and abroad. The idea of Boers doing a film that would accompany his friend’s journey of reconstruction revolving around his uncle’s death once again surfaced. Four years ago, funding was obtained from Societe Radio Canada, and production got underway.

The film begins with Martine (one of Khayat’s aunts and the only one of Jean-Jacques’ sisters who agreed to participate in the production), recounting how Robert and Lola Maimoni arrived with her, at Ben-Gurion airport, to identify Jean Jacques’ body. Robert drew aside the sheet covering the body and discovered gunshot wounds.

Covering the trauma

“The initial idea for the film,” explains Boers, “was to create a journey in which we would try to reveal why it was decided to tell the family that Jean-Jacques had died as the result of an asthma attack. Why did the State of Israel in 1976 choose to say to the family, who had arrived at Ben-Gurion International Airport without knowing that he is dead, that he died during an asthma attack, when it was obvious that this was not the cause of death?”

Were you able to find out why the family was given this explanation?

“Apparently, this was the accepted approach in the 1970s. In that era, it was possible to avoid giving precise accounts because there were no smartphones, and surveillance cameras were not mounted all over the place. It is possible that the motive was not malicious. This was an event of gigantic proportions, and in order to avoid a serious trauma, until all the details were unveiled, that is what the family was told. Another reason, if we look at the situation from the historical and scholarly perspective, is that Israel needed a huge myth after the national trauma created by the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. I understand today that, just as the Netherlands needed Anne Frank, Israel ‘needed’ Entebbe to cover the defeat or trauma, and to recreate an important image. All of these reasons are intermeshed in the story of Jean-Jacques’ death.”

Were the families of the others who died during the rescue similarly left in the dark?

“I saw everything that Channel 1 filmed on the day the Hercules planes returned to Israel with the rescued passengers. I interviewed Hannah Cohen, the wife of Pasco Cohen; she appeared to be in deep shock on that day. [In the original footage], while looking into the camera, she said she had been searching for her husband and did not know where he was. That is very strange something that simply cannot be explained. Robert Maimoni followed the newscasts all day and traveled to the airport in the early morning hours after hearing the report of the rescue. We know that as he made his way to Ben-Gurion airport, a military jeep arrived at the Maimoni home, apparently to inform the family what had happened to Jean-Jacques. Hannah Cohen, on the other hand, was right beside her husband when he was shot. Apparently, she was in deep shock. When I asked Hannah about what she had said on that day ... she had no memory of saying that she did not know where her husband was.”

In the end, it was decided to dispense with an investigative dimension to the film. The various findings are mentioned, however, and one interviewee, Amir Ofer, who played a major role in the commando unit that participated in the raid, talks about the gunfire that killed Jean-Jacques. Ofer describes the tensions surrounding Operation Entebbe and notes that Jean-Jacques did not lie down flat on the ground as the other hostages were instructed to do. To protect both the rescuers and the rescued, explains Ofer, the procedure was to shoot anyone suspected of being a terrorist.

Another of the interviewees is Amos Eran, who was director general of the Prime Minister’s Office under Yitzhak Rabin. He talks about the extensive soul-searching that accompanied the decision to attempt the mission. Eran recalls that Rabin decided he would resign if more than 25 of the hostages were killed in Entebbe.

Boers: “If a quarter of the hostages had been killed, the rescue operation would have been a failure. This is the litmus test for all the other military operations of the IDF. One-quarter of the hostages killed: a failure. Less that that: a success. Much less than that: national ecstasy. Rabin, to whom, for various reasons, the success of Operation Entebbe was not attributed, anticipated that 20 of the hostages would be killed. But three hostages killed: that would be an incredible success from his standpoint.”

Boers relates that “every aspect that was less heroic and less mythological was of interest to me.” Getting the members of the families of the hostages who were killed in the raid, however, was a formidable task: “The people in the Maimoni family who agreed to be interviewed appear in the film, although Jean-Jacques had five sisters. All the other members of his family, including his mother, refused to participate For 35 years, Pasco Cohen’s family never talked about the circumstances of his death. To get them to speak to me, I had to travel to see them, accompanied by the members of the Maimoni family. The family of Ida Borochovitch had scattered. After her death, the family left Israel and I was unable to trace them.”

Boers continues: “The relatives of the dead hostages did not feel that they were part of what is called in Israel ‘the family of the bereaved’ that is, the families of fallen soldiers. Being a part of the ‘family of the bereaved’ offers at least some small measure of comfort. These families felt that everything had been taken from them. They lived in Israel, but they did not receive the ‘hug’ from the nation. There are other reasons. The Maimoni family namely, Robert and Lola immigrated from Tunisia to France and then moved to Israel, a few years before Operation Entebbe. Jean-Jacques was traveling to Paris for a number of reasons. One of them was pressure from Robert, who did not want his son to be inducted into the IDF. So, Robert and Lola felt that they had sent their son to his death.

“It is clear to me that, for the Maimoni family, the film is therapeutic: It allows them to deal with their grief after maintaining silence for so many years. But I was interested in the concept of the national myth: How does a national myth develop? I regard Entebbe and Anne Frank as myths that were equally important to Israel and the Netherlands, respectively. What Anne Frank is for the Netherlands, Operation Entebbe is for Israel: a national myth that no one can touch. It is pure and holy, and yet, like every myth, it contains some things that needed to be erased or hidden so that it could become a myth.

The Dutch blur what ultimately happens to Anne, who was handed over to the Nazis by a Dutchman for seven guilders. Apparently, Israel found it difficult to admit that three Israeli hostages had been killed by IDF gunfire. Such an admission would have impaired the perfect picture of heroism.”

The result is the erasure of the grief of three families that, on this happy day the day that the hostages returned to Israel lost a loved one.

“Yes, I would agree. One of the happiest days in Israeli history, the culmination of the 20th century’s most celebrated rescue mission, is the greatest tragedy imaginable for these three families. Although they are part of this larger-than-life event, they are weeping.”

‘Dynamics of building myths’

Eyal Boers, 37, was born in Jerusalem; when he was two months old, his family moved to the Netherlands. When he was 7, they returned to Israel, taking up residence in Ramat Hasharon. When he was 14, the family again moved this time, to Australia. After reading the book that Ido Netanyahu (the brother of Yonatan and Benjamin) had written about Operation Entebbe, Boers returned to Israel on his own to be inducted into the IDF, serving as a “lone soldier.” His first film, “Lone Soldier,” is based on his experiences in the army. After his discharge, he attended university, first receiving a B.A. in political science and subsequently a master of fine arts degree.

Today, he heads the film and television program at the Ariel University Center, and is working on his doctorate on the image of the Jew in Dutch cinema. Commenting on that subject, Boers notes: “The first thing is to sever ties with the truth. There certainly does not have to be any connection between the image and the truth, as long as the image serves the national interest. When you are living in a country in which 80 percent of the Jewish population was exterminated, a country that helped exterminate them, the construction of a large museum which is the second most popular tourist attraction in Europe and which shows that the Dutch saved the Jews in contrast with the Germans who killed them is a very important matter indeed.

In many Dutch films, the image of the Jew is a reaction to Anne Frank. The Jewish girl has black hair, with a bob haircut, and she lives in an attic. The Jewish male is passive and feminine, is dependent on Gentile rescuers and is naive. There is no requirement that the image faithfully reflect the truth.”

Can the same be said about Operation Entebbe?

“Take Menahem Golan, for instance. In his film about the raid [“Operation Thunderbolt,” 1977], he merged the dead hostages into a single character. In an action film based on an actual event, there is no requirement that it be completely faithful to historical events. But just imagine what the families of the dead hostages must feel. The dynamics of building myths is a fascinating matter.”

David Bachar
Courtesy of Channel 1
Courtesy of Channel 1