Holding Out for a Hero: Yoni Netanyahu, Navy SEALS and the State of the Union

In his speech before Congress this week, President Obama extolled military mores and values that were once the bedrock of Israel’s existence.

“Follow me”

On Saturday night, July 3, 1976, just before midnight, a friend who served in an army intelligence unit knocked frantically at my apartment door in Jerusalem. When I let him in, he started babbling incoherently about the “lunatics” who were running the army who had “insanely” decided to send a rescue mission to Entebbe, Uganda, 2,217 miles away. “They will all die,” I remember both of us moaning, “the soldiers as well as the hostages.”


We then spent the night in ridiculous debate about whether we could call anyone to try and abort the operation, without landing both of us in jail for divulging military secrets and endangering the mission. As the sun came up, my friend called his unit apprehensively, whispering, “I see, I see.” Then he hung up the phone, and looked at me in sheepish amazement: “They’re on their way back. All of them” he said, but before I could start jumping for joy he added “except for Yoni Netanyahu.”

We knew Yoni, or, to put it more accurately, we knew of Yoni, because he was a much admired figure amongst teenagers who were members of the Scouts youth movement, Hazofim, years before he became a fabled soldier in the IDF. There were two scout “tribes,” Masada and Modi’in, located right next to each other in Jerusalem’s Valley of the Cross, just under the Israel Museum, which skirmished endlessly for turf and prestige. We were from Masada, Yoni was from Modi’in and he was the kind of mysterious and mature rival that one had no choice but to grudgingly admire and envy.

Some of these memories came flooding back to me, after a long absence, as I watched the new documentary about Jonathan Netanyahu called “Follow Me,” which premiered at the Jewish Film Festival in New York this week. The movie, produced by Ari Daniel Pinchot, of “Paper Clips” fame, and co-directed by Pinchot and Jonathan Gruber, draws on extensive interviews with, and hitherto unseen materials supplied by, the Netanyahu family, Yoni’s wife, Tirza (Tutti) Krasnoselsky, from who he was divorced, and his subsequent girlfriend, Bruriah, who was the recipient of the last batch of his very famous letters.

I admit that I had resigned myself to yet another chapter in what had once seemed like an endless series of sugar-coated, larger-than-life portrayals of Netanyahu in articles, books, plays and films devoted to the “the hero of Entebbe.” And while the movie steers clear of the bitter controversies and disputes that have erupted in Israel about Netanyahu’s true role in the planning of the Entebbe raid, the exact circumstances of his death and the retroactive embellishments of history allegedly carried out by the Netanyahu family – of which most American Jews know little - I still found it surprisingly nuanced and poignant. Even Yoni’s younger brother Bibi – dare I say it – is caught on film in a heart-rending outburst of grief as he recalls his mother’s terrible scream when she heard of Yoni’s death.

I suspect that while “Follow Me” is likely to prove popular in film festivals, community centers and shuls in America, it might very well get panned in Israel, where Yoni’s legacy has become intertwined with the political career of his younger brother, at least in the eyes of the prime minister’s many detractors. Many American Jews tenaciously try to cling to the image of a righteous, courageous and miraculously resourceful Israel that Entebbe seemed to embody 35 years ago while the real-life flesh and blood Israel has moved on to a different plane of divisiveness and cynicism, and it hasn’t had a hero of Yoni Netanyahu’s stature since, well, Yoni Netanyahu.

It’s not only that IDF successes these days – at least those that are made public – are carried out for the most part by remote-controlled drones and computer-guided missiles, rather than the kind of inspiring personal-contact encounters of yesteryear’s reconnaissance units, or that we seem to have more Gaza flotillas, Dubai debacles and controversial targeted assassinations these days than Munich reprisals, Entebbe operations or electrifying airlifts of Ethiopian refugees. There seems to be something symbolic, you must admit, in the fact that in the past 35 years, the only IDF soldier that has elicited the same kind of sustained and universal outpouring of emotion and empathy that Yoni received in both Israel and the U.S. after his death is, of course, Gilad Shalit.

While there is no reason to doubt the difficulties and anguish that Shalit faced, he was not, after all, a daring commando on a mission but a soldier captured in battle and carried off into captivity, a helpless hostage like the ones that Yoni died trying to save; and in four years of captivity, the IDF could not come up with the kind of rescue operation that they perfected in just 72 hours after the hijacking of Air France flight 139; and Israel released a thousand terrorists to secure Shalit’s release in the sort of deal that Yitzhak Rabin’s government flatly refused to contemplate in 1976; and, in a final twist of truly bitter irony, the responsibility for releasing these convicted terrorists fell on Yoni’s younger brother, who, inspired by his brother’s tragedy, had preached all his life against giving in an inch to terrorist demands.

And that the only soldiers these days who seem to be carrying out the kind of raids that Sayeret Matkal and other IDF units were once renowned for are the US Navy’s Sea, Air, and Land Teams, commonly known as the Navy SEALS.

Obama and the IDF code of ethics

I was somewhat taken aback, I confess, at the relatively low-key coverage of the daring hostage-rescue operation carried out by the SEALS in Somalia on the day that President Obama gave his State of the Union address. News reports of the raid were placed in the third of fourth slot on the evening news, way behind the Republican fracas in Florida, and in some newspapers the operation didn’t even make the front page; perhaps some of the media were concerned that playing up the raid would reflect too well on Obama. In Israel, rest assured, such a successful and surgical operation would have spawned banner headlines and breathless live broadcasts for hours on end.

These different attitudes are also conspicuous in other, related areas. Every Israeli soldier killed in the line of duty is viewed as a national tragedy, and, other than in times of war, each is separately and personally mourned by the public at large. And while I’m sure Americans have the utmost sympathy for their soldiers fighting abroad, I suspect very few people have heard of Captain Daniel Bartle, Captain Nathan McHone, Master Sargent Travis Riddick, Corporal Jessee Stites, Corporal Kevin Reinhard, Corporal Joseph Logan, or Corporal Christopher Singer, all of whom were killed in action in Afghanistan this past week alone.

This is an observation, not a judgment, first and foremost because size matters and America is so vastly larger than Israel that comparisons are largely irrelevant. In any case, in a contest of patriotic fervor and devotion, Israel doesn’t necessarily come out on top. Most Israelis, for example, have long forgotten the kind of emotional rendering of Hatikvah that was common in the country’s first few decades and that Americans share on an almost daily basis as they gaze with longing at the Stars and Stripes, hold their hands over their hearts and sing the Star Spangled Banner with an earnest conviction that would serve as great fodder for Israeli satirical revues.

And it is also true that the kind of gushing praise for the army and its values that Obama injected at the beginning and at the end of his State of the Union speech this week, once common in Israeli political parlance, is now restricted to military bases and to the staple speeches of the annual Yom Hazikaron memorial day. A politician who dared use such language on any other occasion, one suspects, would be immediately castigated by his rivals and critics.

“When you're marching into battle,” Obama said in extolling the Bin Laden operation “you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails. When you're in the thick of the fight, you rise or fall as one unit, serving one Nation, leaving no one behind. All that mattered that day was the mission.”

To Israeli ears, Obama’s words echoed of “mutual responsibility,” “never leave a wounded soldier in the field” and, yes, “follow me” – acharai - that are the traditional core values of the IDF. As its recently approved code of ethics states, “The IDF servicemen and women will act out of fraternity and devotion to their comrades, and will always go to their assistance when they need their help or depend on them, despite any danger or difficulty, even to the point of risking their lives. The IDF soldiers view their service in the IDF as a mission; they will be ready to give their all in order to defend the state, its citizens and residents.”

As Obama exhorted Congress and the American people to emulate the battle mores and the espirit de corps of the Navy SEALS, it sounded to me like an anachronistic blast from the past, last heard in Israel more or less in the Entebbe years, just like the words of Yoni Netanyahu’s grey-haired comrades from Sayeret Matkal who were interviewed in the film: they all seemed to come from an Israeli generation that has since retired from the country itself.

Perhaps that’s why camaraderie and solidarity seem to be in such short supply these days, the icons and idols of yore get torn down day by day, presidents are sitting in jail and prime ministers are standing trial, revered national institutions such as the Israeli Supreme Court and the democratic principles that it enforced are sullied and delegitimized by cynical politicians, and complex heroes like Yoni and others of his ilk are just fading memories for older Israelis and simplistic slogans for the young.

As Bonnie Tyler asked in a song that might have been apt as the credits rolled at the end of “Follow Me”: “Where have all good men gone and where are all the gods? Where’s the street-wise Hercules to fight the rising odds? Isn’t there a white knight upon a fiery steed?” As far as we know, the answer is unfortunately no, though contrary to what Tina Turner may have crooned, it seems that Israel does indeed need another hero, and rather desperately at that.

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