The unexpectedly lovely documentary “Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story” reminds us what an unequivocal Israeli hero looks like.
A portrait of the life and times of the only Israeli casualty of the stunning long-distance rescue of the Jewish hostages at Entebbe in 1976, Ari Daniel Pinchot and Jonathan Gruber’s excellent film hearkens to a time before black and white blurred into a morass of gray.
“Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story” is now available on DVD after playing several Jewish film festivals and receiving a very limited theatrical release.
Israel owned the moral high ground on the world stage after the massacre of its athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and continued to hold it as PLO operatives and sympathizers followed that “success” with a wave of international hijackings and hostage taking in the next few years. At home, however, national morale suffered from the heavy Yom Kippur War casualties, widely attributed to a lack of preparedness and poor decision-making.
When Palestinian terrorists seized an Air France jet en route from Tel Aviv to Paris and diverted it to Uganda, Israel stuck to its staunch policy of not negotiating for hostages. Bloodshed on a massive scale appeared inevitable until the surprise hit-and-run raid by an elite squad of Israeli soldiers — under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Yonathan Netanyahu — saved a hundred innocent lives and gave the nation a huge shot of pride and confidence.
This gripping chronology of events is intercut with Netanyahu’s compelling biography, which is largely unknown even to those with distinct memories of the exhilarating triumph at Entebbe. “Follow Me” is almost entirely in English and thus seems primarily aimed at American audiences, although it has no discernible political (or even generalized anti-war) agenda.
The eldest of three brothers, Yoni Netanyahu was born in New York City in 1946 and raised in the new state of Israel. His father was a professor and editor-in-chief of an encyclopedia, and scholars often visited their home. During Yoni’s adolescence, the family returned to the States twice for year-plus sojourns to accommodate his father’s research.
“I yearn for a place that’s narrow, hot, filthy,” a frustrated Yoni wrote from the comfortable Philadelphia suburb where they resided when he was 16. “A place that’s mostly desert and one can scarcely find on a map of the world.”
It’s apparent from photographs and the recollections of his brothers (including Benjamin, the current prime minister), lovers and fellow soldiers that Yoni was charismatic, with the open face and striking good looks of a young Pierce Brosnan.
He belonged to a generation of youthful nation-builders, and his first allegiance was to the state of Israel — even if it meant relinquishing certain goals. Wounded in the Six-Day War, Yoni married his sweetheart and moved to Boston to attend Harvard. But the pull of Israel, and the pull of the army, was so strong that they returned after just one year.
Yoni somehow finagled his way back into the military, even though he couldn’t bend or straighten his injured arm, and he was assigned to a top unit entrusted with risky and usually top-secret missions. An exceptional commitment was required, and he willingly made it even at the cost of his marriage.
There are telltale clues in his letters, and in his appreciation of poetry, that Netanyahu was a multidimensional person capable not just of leadership but reflection. Surprisingly, “Follow Me” doesn’t accentuate his lost potential for non-military contributions, nor does it invite any of the interviewees to contemplate how this deeply thoughtful, highly educated Zionist would have dealt with the invasion of Lebanon, or the construction of settlements on the West Bank.
“Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story” is a valuable, well-crafted and emotionally resonant addition to the video library of Israeli history, but it doesn’t stray beyond its boundaries. The ramifications of these events, and the ways in which Israel and the world have changed in the ensuing 35 years, are left to the viewer to mull.
The film doesn’t explore the impact of the Entebbe raid on Bibi’s politics, for example, although one might assume that the combat death of a revered older brother would make someone less willing to compromise with enemies.
We also might consider, without expressing anything but happiness for the younger soldier, how the notion of an Israeli hero has evolved from Yoni Netanyahu to Gilad Shalit.