Yoni Netanyahu, a 'role model' to follow

JERUSALEM — Thirty-six years ago this month, a hostage drama played out in Entebbe, Uganda, that transfixed the world. Militant supporters of the Palestinian cause hijacked an Air France flight bound for Paris from Tel Aviv, eventually flying the plane to Africa, where Israeli commandos carried out a mission that freed more than 100 hostages.

Leading the operation was Yonatan "Yoni" Netanyahu, who became the sole Israeli soldier to die in the raid; three hostages also lost their lives. Still, the operation was considered a victory for the young nation, but it was a tragedy for the Netanyahu family, one that helped propel Yoni's younger brother, Benjamin, into politics and eventually the prime minister's office.

To Israelis, Yoni Netanyahu is a household name. His life story could easily be compared to that of Joseph Kennedy Jr.: a first-born, charismatic, handsome military man and presumed political leader who died young serving his country. Netanyahu's letters, published in 1980, only added to that legend.

But to many young American Jews, Entebbe and Netanyahu's death at age 30 is unfamiliar — which inspired producer-director Ari Daniel Pinchot to make a film in English about the storied soldier. "Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story" opened in limited release late last month and is traveling to film festivals around the country.

"I grew up on Yoni's letters.... I have Israeli heroes, but my kids don't have any Israeli heroes," said Pinchot, 40, a producer on documentaries and feature films, including "Paper Clips,""Everything Must Go"and"The Ides of March.""He's a wonderful role model."

The film is both a time capsule and strikingly contemporary — many of those involved in the Entebbe raid are top officials in Israel. The film is told largely through Netanyahu's letters, read by actor Marton Csokas, intercut with interviews with Israeli politicians including President Shimon Peres (defense minister in 1976), Defense Minister Ehud Barak (who was among the operation's planners) and the current prime minister himself, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Also sitting for interviews are Yoni Netanyahu's ex-wife, his girlfriend at the time of his death, father Benzion Netanyahu (who died this past spring at age 102) and commandos who served under Yoni. The film makes use of Netanyahu home movies and covers personal topics, including love, miscarriage and divorce.

Benzion Netanyahu was an academic who moved his family to the U.S. in the 1950s and '60s while he taught in Philadelphia and New York. Yoni and his brothers attended high school stateside; Yoni attended Harvard University but left after a year, in 1968, to return to Israel and then join the army. Benjamin Netanyahu later went to MIT (where he learned of his brother's death in 1976).

Yoni Netanyahu's letters describe the young man's nostalgia for his Jerusalem childhood, his take on the horrors of war, details of his romances — and his outsider's view of the "empty, meaningless life" he found in the States, where he wrote that his high school classmates wanted only to talk about "cars and girls." ("I think Freud would have found very fertile soil here," he added.)

In the film, the often rigid, self-assured Benjamin Netanyahu shows a softer side, speaking in English with a Philadelphia accent, recalling childhood pillow fights and moments in the States as he stood by the mailbox with the "little red flag" awaiting his brother's letters from Israel.

In an interview with The Times last week in the Israeli capital immediately after the annual memorial service for his brother, the prime minister said he thinks of his brother "every day practically."

Asked if talking about Yoni has gotten easier with the passage of time: "Sometimes it gets harder. It depends. You know, time heals a wound, but it doesn't erase the scar. And there's a force of life, a river of life, that hurls us forward.

"We face other challenges, other tasks. We have our own children, and they have their children, and we have the great tasks that face us in our personal life and our national life. So there are many reasons why a wound closes, but for some it never heals."

Pinchot said he named his son, now 14, after Yoni Netanyahu and hoped young American Jews would take something from his example as portrayed in the film.

Yoni Netanyahu "had every reason to be self-absorbed. He was a brilliant guy, accepted to one of the greatest universities, good-looking, had relationships with women, phenomenal athlete, so incredible but constantly pushing his personal ambitions aside to serve a greater cause," Pinchot said. "This is really important for children, young people to see. My children are growing up in a world that is increasingly self-absorbed."

Some critics have criticized "Follow Me" as an overly laudatory portrait, one that fails to place Yoni Netanyahu's life in proper context or explore the ramifications of his death on Israeli politics — including his younger brother's hawkish policies.

"Some see it as an anti-war movie, others as a heroic one about a man who did what he needed to do," Pinchot said. "But both these sides are present. This actually personified Yoni, who was a complex person."

Pinchot's writer-director partner Jonathan Gruber said he and Pinchot "worked very hard to keep politics out of it," particularly when it came to the involvement of Benjamin Netanyahu.

"I don't mean this as a slight to the prime minister in any way, only that he spoke as Yoni's brother, telling the story from his point of view," Gruber said. "Of course people out there may still say it's political and has an agenda, but the fact is we made this film about a remarkable man. And we kept it about him."


Staff writer Julie Makinen contributed to this report.

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