TheDC’s Jamie Weinstein: July 4, Entebbe, and Israel’s line in the sand
Editor’s note: You’re not having déjà vu. The Daily Caller is re-running the following essay from last year because the Fourth of July holds deep meaning for at least one nation other than the United States: Israel. And as Middle-East tensions rise, the Jewish homeland’s mission of self-preservation has become one of this era’s most important stories.
Thirty-five years ago on July 4, Israel executed one of the most stunning hostage rescue operations in military history. But during the raid one of Israel’s greatest warriors, Jonathan, was struck down on an airport tarmac in Uganda. Without understanding his sacrifice and the words he left behind, it may be impossible to truly understand the mentality of the current Israeli government.
When news of Jonathan’s death reached then-Israeli Defense Minister Shimon Peres, now President of Israel, Peres wrote in his diary that he broke down and cried. When Peres asked one of Jonathan’s fellow officers how he was killed, he reportedly answered plainly, “He went first, he fell first.”
“Against a peak of terror, which was assisted by the army and president of Uganda, at a distance of over four thousands kilometers from home, in one short hour, the posture of the entire Jewish people — in fact, the posture of free and responsible men all over the world — was straightened,” Peres declared at Jonathan’s funeral. “The most difficult moment of this night of heroism occurred when the bitter news arrived that a bullet had torn the young heart of one of the finest sons of Israel, one of the most courageous warriors of Israel.”
Jonathan left behind hundreds of letters to his parents, his brothers and his lovers, letters that reflect a wisdom far beyond his years. And these letters, especially those addressed to his brother Benjamin, are in some ways a secret decoder into the mind of the leader today’s Israeli government.
After finishing high school in the United States, where his father left Israel to work as a professor, Jonathan returned to Israel and joined the Israel Defense Forces. While in his first months as a soldier, he would note the stark contrast between civilian and military life, highlighting the sacrifice of serving one’s country.
“It’s extraordinary, the distance between soldier and civilian,” he wrote in a letter dated September 29, 1965, just after Rosh Hoshana, the Jewish New Year. “In town, people are having parties. In brightly lit rooms there is music, and people stay up until morning. I, too, was up until morning, the only difference being that I was lying on the ground on a dark cold night without a single ray of light to brighten by surroundings, alert to every suspicious sound and movement around me.”
Writing a letter after hearing his brother Benjamin, then a high-school student in the U.S., was in a fight after someone directed an anti-Semitic remark his way, Jonathan advised, ”There’s nothing wrong with a good fist fight; on the contrary, if you’re young and you’re not seriously hurt, it won’t do you real harm. Remember what I told you? He who delivers the first blow, wins.”
Jonathan’s letters also spoke to his remarkable abilities, including his unnaturally calm demeanor. “Evidently there are people who lose all sense of reality under fire and don’t know what they are doing, while others feel no changes at all. In any case, that’s how I felt — the same degree of concentration, the same sense of judgment, the same grasp of reality, and almost the same level of tension as I usually have on any other day,” he wrote after experiencing battle.
Just weeks before the Six Day War, Jonathan longed for peace, as he did often in his letters. “I hope it will not come to war. How absurd! Not a soul in Israel wants it. But if war breaks out, I’m positive we’ll come through it victorious, not only because we are strong enough…but also because we have to win.”
He also recognized in the same letter the sense of duty and obligation he felt to fight, if war must come. “If anything should happen, I’m glad I’ll be here and be able to take part. This is my country and my homeland. It is here that I belong.”
In the midst of the Six Day War, he wrote to his lover Tutti — who would later become his wife — of the tragedy of war. “I am eaten up with worry for you. Perhaps in a few days, when it’s all over and we’re together again, perhaps then we’ll smile. Right now it’s a bit hard. When you smile, something inside hurts. Tonight, and maybe tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, we’ll be shooting again, again there’ll be dead and wounded. I’ll be all right, but I’m sorry for the others.”
Jonathan entered Harvard in the fall following the Six Day War. In one letter from Cambridge to his brother Benjamin, he spoke of their closeness.
“Even when I was in Israel I didn’t miss anyone at home as much as I missed you. I think the reason may be that you’re the only true friend I ever had, and the fact that I think I reached a perfect understanding with you in nearly all areas,” he wrote.
After his first year at Harvard, Jonathan felt compelled to return to Israel, which was continuing to face conflict with its neighbors. His sense of duty ultimately compelled him to rejoin the army. Writing to his father about his strong desire to defend his nation so it would not be short lived, Jonathan wrote,
“Only if we do that, if we give all we have for the well-being of our country, will Israel remain the State of the Jews. Only then will they not write in the history books that once indeed the Jews roused themselves to action and held on to their land for two decades, but then were overwhelmed and became once more homeless wanderers.”
In a 1969 letter to his parents, Jonathan again made clear his duty to defend his country and the burden that had been placed upon the young men of Israel.
“In another week, I’ll be twenty-three. Time flies, doesn’t it? My years bear down on me with all their weight. Not a as load or a burden, but as the sum of all the long and short moments that have gone into them. On me, on us, the young men of Israel, rests the duty of keeping our country safe. This is a heavy responsibility, which matures us early.”
To his wife Tutti, Jonathan wrote in 1970 of his duty to serve, a duty that would ultimately destroy their marriage.
“Anyone who has something to contribute at present ought to do it. I believe that the Jewish people’s survival depends largely upon Israel – and more than that: that Israel’s survival depends on us — on our capabilities and staying power. It’s enough to read just once all the war slogans of the tens of millions of neighbors, to note their hatred and desire to annihilate us (including you, my wife), to get an extra boost and encouragement for my staying in the army.”
In another 1970 letter, this one addressed to his parents, Jonathan lamented the fact that Israel’s foes refused to sit down and negotiate peace.
“How sad that we cannot achieve peace! For that is all we all want in the end. But the simple fact is that we have no one to talk to. Not one of the Arab states will agree to have peace talks with us.”
Writing to brother Benjamin after the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Jonathan wrote about how he refused to become part of the “wandering Jewish people.”
“I would rather opt for living here in continual battle than for becoming part of the wandering Jewish people.,” he declared. “Any compromise will simply hasten the end. As I don’t intend to tell my grandchildren about the Jewish State in the twentieth century as a mere brief and transient episode in thousands of years of wandering, I intend to hold on here with all my might.”
In another letter to Benjamin in 1974, Jonathan expressed his anxiety about Israel’s long term prospects for survival.
“I feel profoundly apprehensive about the future of the Jewish State. Shedding illusions, I see that the process aimed at annihilating us is gathering momentum and the noose is tightening. It won’t be a rapid process, though our strength will diminish from one war to the next,” he wrote.
Two years later, after two Palestinian Arab terrorists along with two left-wing German accomplices hijacked an Air France plane filled with Israelis, ultimately directing the flight to Uganda, Israel had a choice to make. Give in to the demands of terrorists in order to save the passengers, refuse to give in and allow the passengers to be killed, or launch a risky operation to rescue them. Jonathan, who was then the commander of one of Israel’s most elite special force units, was tasked with coming up with a rescue plan. Based on Jonathan’s confidence in his plan and their confidence in Jonathan, the Israeli cabinet approved the mission. Out of the over 100 Israeli hostages, Jonathan’s plan saved all but four. He was the only Israeli soldier to fall.
Today, one of Jonathan’s younger brothers, Benjamin Netanyahu, occupies for the second time the office of Israel’s Prime Minister at a time of great peril for the Jewish State. Jonathan’s life and letters, immortalized in “The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu,” resonate from the grave. They remind his brother, who too was an elite officer in the IDF, that Israel’s position in the world is precarious, that it has enemies that seek its destruction, that Israel can depend on nobody but itself, that to win a fight you often have to strike first, that continual sacrifice is necessary in order to prevent Jews from becoming wanderers again, and that while it is important to strive for peace, Israel must always be ready to fight.
With the current rift between Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama, it is important to understand the motivations of each leader. There may be no better window into the soul of Benjamin Netanyahu than the letters of his lost brother. As Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has written, the loss of his brother was so “traumatic in every way; it changed my life and directed it to its present course.”