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Remembering Yoni Netanyahu

July 26, 2012 By:
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Yoni Netanyahu. Photo courtesy of the Netanyahu family

Entebbe. Even now, 36 years later, this one word has the ability to immediately conjure competing emotions of dread and pride.

For seven days in 1976, it seemed as though the whole world was transfixed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine's hijacking of an Air France plane and the subsequent standoff at the Ugandan airport. Then, in the midnight darkness of July 4, Sayeret Maktal commandos (the Israeli SEAL Team) led a daring raid, codenamed Project Thunderbolt, that resulted in all but three of the hostages being rescued alive, while suffering only one casualty -- the operation's commander, Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu.

While the raid itself has become the stuff of legend, as well as the focus of numerous books, movies, television specials and the like, the most ever said about Yoni Netanyahu was usually in relation to his being the older brother of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

If Jonathan Gruber has his way, that will no longer be the case. Gruber is the director of Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story, which opens in the Phila­delphia area on July 27.

Gruber is no stranger to the subject of Jews and war: his acclaimed 2011 film, Jewish Soldiers in Blue & Gray, dealt with Jews fighting on both sides of the Civil War. Like many, he knew about Entebbe, but "Yoni's story -- I really did not know about that," he says.

Thanks to his co-director and producer Ari Daniel Pinchot's 16-year quest to make Follow Me ("It was a passion project for him," Gruber explains), Gruber had plenty of time to learn about Netanyahu the soldier and Netanyahu the man.

And he has put that source material onscreen. The Netan­yahu family granted the filmmaker unprecedented access to Yoni's letters, both published and unpublished, family photos and home movies. And interviewees reminiscing about Yoni include brothers Benjamin and Iddo, former Israeli prime ministers Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres, Yoni's Sayeret Maktal commandos -- even his ex-wife, Tirza, who had never before agreed to speak about her relationship with Yoni.

The result: Follow Me is an elegiac portrait of a life cut short, of someone who struggled from youth through adulthood with the responsibility of defending his country and trying to find his place in a world where war was a constant threat. Gruber acknowledges that "it's kind of a challenge" to portray this onscreen "because he is split. He is a military guy, and then you hear about his 'kill' letter [Yoni's first-person accounts about killing during battle], and you see that he is a poet."

Yoni's dual nature was apparent during his high school years, where he was a member of Cheltenham High School's Class of 1964. He attended the school as a result of his father, Benzion Netanyahu, taking a teaching position at Dropsie College. Gruber found that while "people were drawn to him wherever he was, I also think he struggled there."

This view is backed up by Yoni's English honors classmate and friend, Steven Friedman, now a lawyer at Duane Morris. "This very articulate, extremely handsome, soft-spoken Israeli was a very serious young man, much more serious than the rest of us," he recalls. Friedman, who, along with Benjamin Netanyahu, was responsible for the memorial to Yoni located in front of Mikveh Israel in Old City, found Yoni to be "a sophisticated individual who was already dealing with important issues like Israel's vulnerability and the threats from its neighbors."

John Solis-Cohen, another classmate of Yoni's, as well as his teammate on their high school soccer team, has similar recollections. "He had a quiet self-confidence. He was a great athlete and had this strong character about him, this inner strength that people gravitated to," the managing director/investment officer at Wells Fargo in Jenkintown remembers. "But he may not have been entirely comfortable with the lifestyle here. He looked at his time here in the U.S. as short time. It was clear he was anticipating Israel as his permanent home."

In fact, as soon as he graduated from high school, he returned to Israel, leaving the rest of his family in their Elkins Park home, and enlisted in the Israeli Defense Force, beginning a career that would culminate in one of the greatest rescue missions of the 20th century, a pivotal moment in Israel's history that to this day swells the pride and gladdens the hearts of Jews around the world.

Thanks to Gruber's documentary, Yoni Netanyahu is getting his moment as well.

Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story opens July 27 at the Clearview Bala Theatre, 157 Bala Avenue, Bala Cynwyd, 610-668-4695. For more information about the movie, go to: www.followmethemovie.com.

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