Yoni Netanyahu: The heart and mind of a hero

The Talmud teaches that mourning does not begin until the first piles of dirt are thrown upon a grave. So it must follow, then, that a person’s death is the final act of their life. Certainly this was so for Yoni Netanyahu, a beloved Israeli military commander and the eldest son of one of Israel’s most distinguished political families. He died leading Operation Entebbe, in 1976, which rescued more than a hundred Jewish hostages from armed terrorists; his final act — rushing headlong into a combat crisis at an unfamiliar airport in Uganda — was indicative of how he lived: courageously, fearlessly, animated by sadness and an implacable sense of mission.

In Israel, his death was chronicled with great historic and dramatic significance. Today it endures as one of those war legends that stand as testimony to national heroism. Indeed, his death was experienced as a national loss. Yoni, the handsome, articulate son of the nation-building Zionist and renowned academic Benzion Netanyahu, was every bit Israel’s child. A book of his letters, published posthumously by the Netanyahu family, portrays a young man who only felt fully alive as an active defender of his nation.

Three decades later, the spectacular cinema of his death still sustains its hold on the Israeli imagination. Many also maintain that the psychic imprint it left upon his brother, Benjamin, formed the future prime minister’s worldview. A death of these proportions, however, has also obscured the more ordinary details of Yoni’s life — his loves, his passion for learning and penchant for prose, his poet’s soul. A new documentary, “Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story,” aims to bridge this chasm by adding to the drama of his death the story of his life. And by way of Yoni’s letters, it plays as a kind of autobiography narrated by the subject himself. As the film’s co-director Jonathan Gruber put it, “This is a story told through Yoni’s eyes.”

“Man does not live forever,” Yoni wrote in one of his early letters, read in voiceover. “He should put the days of his life to the best possible use. … I don’t want to reach a certain age, look around me, and suddenly discover that I’ve created nothing.”

For all his war heroism, the documentary keeps its focus on Yoni’s personal plight: a man torn between multiple fidelities. In this portrait, Yoni’s greatest struggle came from within himself, endlessly divided between duty to his country and the drives of his heart. “Even though I find the army to be of great interest,” he wrote as a teenager to his girlfriend Tutti Goodman, who would later become his wife, “I fail to see my future in it. There are so many things I want to do and it’s difficult to see myself as an army man all my life.”

Had he been possessed of less talent as a soldier, he might have pursued other avenues with more ease. “From day one he was a very accomplished soldier,” his youngest brother Iddo Netanyahu told me. “He was a natural leader. He never hesitated to act. Besides being a big brother, he was in many ways a semi-parent to [Bibi and me]. He just had this attitude; he was a brother that wanted to instruct you.”

“For the younger brothers and especially for Bibi, Yoni really was their mentor,” the film’s co-director Ari Daniel Pinchot said. “He was the leader of the pack, the one who protected them. Even as they got older, Yoni would write these remarkable letters to Bibi about how to prepare for the army, step-by-step. He was incredibly protective.”

Even as a teenager, Yoni stood out among his peers. “He was great at sports — the best soccer player that I ever encountered,” Iddo recalled. “He was a handsome kid — women loved him — very intelligent, very thoughtful, a brilliant student in high school. He was the kind of person people admired. He was a combination of a thinker and a doer. He had this sort of moral fiber in him, this moral sense that said, ‘I have to do what I preach.’ ”

The last photograph of Yoni Netanyahu, taken a short time before he was killed in the 1976 raid on Entebbe. Photo courtesy of the Netanyahu Family

He demonstrated to his brothers that duty to country was paramount. During the period that they lived in Philadelphia, while their father served as visiting professor at his alma mater, Dropsie College, Yoni grew restless to return to Israel. “I yearn for a place that is narrow, hot, rotten, filthy — a place that’s more than 60 percent desert,” he wrote. In the movie, Bibi described the move to the United States as “a terrible crisis for us,” though it seems to have had the deepest impact on the eldest brother: “The only things people talk about are cars and girls,” Yoni wrote of life in Philadelphia, adding wryly, “Freud would have found very fertile soil here.”

Even though it required leaving his family, Yoni’s calling was in Israel. “He had no false modesty about himself. The kids that he went to school with looked on him as a leader,” Iddo said. “There were those who openly expressed their feeling that he might eventually be …” — he added, with a hint of hesitation — “prime minister.” Finally, in what sounded like vague regret, Iddo admitted, “Certainly I thought about it that way.”

What Yoni did not live to realize became part of the family story anyway. And at least according to the film’s telling, it does inspire some wonder as to just how deep his influence was on his brothers: “We were very, very close,” Bibi Netanyahu says to the camera. “We were really a band of brothers.”

One of the strengths of “Follow Me” is the privileged view it allows into the Netanyahu family. In addition to interviews with both Netanyahu brothers, several other key family members also appear in the film — including their now-deceased father, Benzion (who initially declined to be interviewed for the film because it was too painful for him), along with Yoni’s former wife, Goodman, who appears in her first public interview in more than 30 years. The film also includes Yoni’s girlfriend at the time of his death, Bruria Shaked-Okon, the last in his closest circle to see him alive.

The structure of the story casts Yoni’s journey in an ominous frame. The opening sequence makes use of the authentic audio feed transmitted within the special operations outfit, known simply as “the unit,” that carried out the highly specialized mission to Entebbe. The events of that day are reconstructed by combining real sound recordings with footage shot inside the actual planes used during the operation, as well as a digital rendering of the raid. Intercutting the deadly drama with the more pro-forma techniques of documentary style, the filmmakers set up a suspenseful narrative so that the audience’s anticipation and anxiety leading to the showdown acts as a kind of mirror to Yoni’s own anxiety over his fate.

For Yoni, death was not some far-off inevitability the way it is for the rest of us; it was something close, a familiar yet unwanted acquaintance. “He did not have a fatalistic view on life, but he knew that life was going to end,” Iddo said, looking back. “He knew that he was doing dangerous things and could die any day. He did not want to die, but he was one of those rare people who did not fear death.”

Still, mortality stalked him with sadness. While serving in the army, he wrote of war “hanging over our heads like a swollen balloon” and how Israelis and Jews “must cling to our country with our bodies” — the sort of desperate sentiments that never really allowed him a life of normalcy. Indeed, it was after he left America, returned to Israel and met Goodman that his deep, inner conflict became amplified.

“If I didn’t have to go out and kill, and if I wasn’t alone, without you,” he wrote to Goodman while he was stationed somewhere remote, “it would actually be nice here.”

The couple married in Jerusalem when Yoni was 21, and immediately moved to Boston so he could attend Harvard. But they had barely made it a year before skirmishes between Israel and Egypt forced him home. His inner torment was again stoked: “A kind of sadness has overtaken me that doesn’t leave me,” he wrote. “I sense it in others who came through war — that harmony that characterizes a young man’s life is not a part of me anymore.” Of his studies, he said, “I can no longer see this as my main mission in life; hence the sadness of young men destined for endless war.”

Filmmaker Pinchot began this project 16 years ago, when he and his wife read Yoni’s letters together while they were dating. He envisioned the film as a love story. “Here is a man caught between two loves,” Pinchot said. “He’s in love with his family and the two women in his life, and he is torn by deep love for his country.” But the inspiration Pinchot took from Yoni’s life — he even named his first child after him — belies the nature of this Hamlet-like love: To the women, he was only half-present in relationships. When Goodman miscarried, days passed before he arrived at the hospital. And later, after the bloody conflict of the Yom Kippur War had inflicted deep psychic wounds, he gave Shaked-Okon the impression that he could never again restore himself to love.

She refused to accept. “I decided I had to make him love me,” she says in the film. “And I worked on it. I worked on it. And in the end, it happened.” But just as with his first wife, who divorced him after four-and-a-half years of marriage, his heart was chronically, neurotically divided. “I’ve been thinking about how to change my life so we can live as a normal couple,” he wrote to Shaked-Okon. “But I have not yet found the solution.”

If he sacrificed his life for Israel, his consolation is an enduring iconic status. He remains fresh in the Israeli imagination, still an emblem of what a true child of Israel might be — imbued with biblical significance and foreshadowing modern Israel’s dominance. As Gruber put it, “I don’t think we as Americans can truly appreciate Yoni’s status in Israel. I once heard an Israeli friend say, ‘There’s Yoni and there’s Hannah Senesh’ — these two mythical figures who sacrificed for the good of their people.”

It must seem ironic, then, that the main criticism of “Follow Me” — the work of two American filmmakers — has been that it functions as hagiography. And at times, it does seem to verge into tearjerker territory, though it must be said, it stops short of canonization. After all, he was the first to admit to his failed relationships and private flaws. He was intensely self-aware and honest, and, for an otherwise macho military man, remarkably forthcoming with his vulnerabilities.

In a way, Yoni’s personal struggle is the embodiment of Israel’s: both are split between self-development and the endless need for self-defense. “We always thought Yoni’s story and character really illuminates the greater Israeli story and character,” Pinchot said. “Everyone in Israel serves in the army; they make careers; they support their families, but then every year they go off to defend their country. They have all the life goals and struggles that we have, but then they have this other element to them, and it’s a remarkable sacrifice that they make. Yoni portrays that like no other Israeli could.”

Yoni Netanyahu filtered his painful, physical purpose through the prism of prose, turning tragedy and suffering into poetry. In the face of the fragility of life, his torment gave way to wakefulness: “The world is truly full of beauty,” he wrote, “and the ugliness in it only highlights the beauty.”

“Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story” opens in Los Angeles on June 22.