|The lone Israeli soldier killed during the historic rescue at Entebbe airport on July 4, 1976, was Yonatan Netanyahu. He is the subject of a new documentary film being shown at Lincoln Center’s annual New York Jewish Film Festival.|
On June 27, 1976, Air France Flight 139 was hijacked in a joint operation by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the German Revolutionary Cells. After a stopover at Benghazi Airport in Libya, the French Airbus was flown to Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Almost immediately, the Israeli government began planning a rescue mission in case negotiations failed. There were 248 passengers and 12 crew members being held hostage. At Entebbe, the hijackers separated Jews from non-Jews, freeing the latter (although several passengers chose to stay with the Jews, as did the Air France flight crew). On July 4, 1976, there were 105 hostages remaining as the hijackers prepared to begin executing one hostage every half-hour until their demands were met.
It was at about that moment that Israeli commandoes – having flown 2,500 miles under enemy radar and through powerful storms – broke into the building where the hostages were being held and rescued all but three of them. The elite commando unit that led the rescue, Sayeret Matkal, was under the command of Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu. He was the sole IDF casualty that day.
Ari Daniel Pinchot and Jonathan Gruber’s film “Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story” focuses on Netanyahu, whose younger brother Binyamin is Israel’s prime minister. The film not only provides an insightful look at the rescue, but focuses a lens on Israeli society of that period. “Yoni” lived and died at a time of transition for the Jewish state and the film follows that change through his life’s story.
In watching interviews with family and friends, one gains insight not only into Yoni the hero, Yoni the poet, and Yoni the scholar, and he legitimately was all those things, but Yoni the young Israeli, whose life and promise were representative of a generation at a special time in Israel’s history. (A review of the film, which made its debut in January at the New York Jewish Film Festival, is available at http://www.jstandard.com/content/item/year_of_the_documentaries/21597.)
Pinchot and Gruber shared some of their thoughts in an interview with The Jewish Standard’s film reviewer, Eric Goldman. What follows is an edited version of that interview.
Q: What brought you to this project?
PINCHOT: Fifteen years ago, I was a wannabee young filmmaker who wanted to make a film that would have a real impact. I came across a book of letters by Yoni that was published by the family and was very moved by the book….I saw that this was a remarkable story of somebody who was trying to make a difference in the world….This was such a great story – Yoni’s unselfishness and belief in serving a higher cause was something that people needed [to know]. It was a story worth telling…, a love triangle, a story of a young man who was torn between his two loves; one, his country; the other, the women in his family.
GRUBER: The letters were so poetic and, in my mind, visual that it really called for this sort of lyrical approach….It’s really a story told through Yoni’s eyes.
PINCHOT: Having the letters, we were really able to get inside Yoni’s head, his mind, his heart, his soul. It’s really a story about Yoni. It’s not a story about his father [who passed away two weeks ago]; his brothers; it is not a political story. It’s really a very intimate story about a young hero, with all the faults and all the conflicts that come along with that.
Q: Is it not also about a time in Israel’s past that is no more?
GRUBER: You do see Yoni’s relationship with Israel, which is obviously very passionate. Those sentiments echo and resonate with a lot of people. They feel that passion. Some people have written to me and they say that it [the passion] has been reignited….Things have become more complicated in terms of how people feel about Israel today.
Q: When you look at this story closely and the path taken by Yoni, leaving a promising career here in the United States and his choice to return to Israel, you can’t help but take a closer look at brother Bibi (Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu) and his similar journey.
PINCHOT: The story is the story of a family that was deeply connected to a land and deeply committed to its survival. I think what each brother did with that connection is very different. I can’t say that Yoni is the same as Bibi at all, because I think Yoni portrays himself in the letters as a very complex person….In the letters, he talks about defending the country and [how] superior military power is essential, but he also writes about trading land for peace….In reading his letters, you get a sense of somebody who just wants his country to survive.
GRUBER: People are savvy and they know we are interviewing the prime minister of Israel [in the film]. We are trying to show this person as a younger brother who really idolized his older brother and a tremendous trauma happened to him. What drove Bibi to do what he did is another story. The only thing that was “impactful” for me was that when Yoni was killed, that changed his [Bibi’s] vision in life and people can tap into that. A tragic event changed people’s lives – it’s all the people who were affected by his death.
Q: Somehow, I can’t help but see a similarity in how John F. Kennedy reacted to his older brother Joe’s death, or even how Robert Kennedy’s life was changed with JFK’s death. By bringing Bibi into this film, you force the subject. In a real sense, did not the loss of Yoni have a major impact on his brother, the political scene, and the nation?
PINCHOT: The reaction has been positive. There will be some who will see this through a political lens….This is a story that’s 35 years old. This is the first time that Yoni’s first wife has told her story on film. It’s not just a positive story. There are lots of conflicts. This is a story about Yoni.
GRUBER: It was real important for us to show how he struggled. Here was a person who really gave of himself. He had every reason to stay at Harvard and be a successful academic. But he felt that his purpose was for something else.
Q: You look at the film portrayal of a different time of Yoni the hero, whether it be Yehoram Gaon or Charles Bronson playing the part [both did, in separate films]. What of Yoni, the hero of Entebbe? Here, you are taking a true Israeli hero and showing him as flawed?
PINCHOT: Our belief is the fact that someone could have all these flaws, but also these great gifts. That just makes him human and relatable. This is a person…like any other human being, great passion, strong feelings for his country, and he is able to harness his strength to help [Israel] in its greatest time of need. That is a 2012 hero!
GRUBER: Viewers truly appreciate a well-rounded complex nuanced portrait of a person that they have only known in one way before. I don’t think it diminishes how they feel about Yoni Netanyahu. I think it enhances. I think that there is a real appreciation of his struggles.