The Wandering Review: ‘Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story’
By Laurie Baron
LA JOLLA, California — The San Diego Jewish Film Festival will kick off its 23rd year with a screening of Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story on Sunday, August 19 at 7:15 p.m. in the Lawrence Family JCC’s Garfield Theatre. This inspiring documentary directed by Jonathan Gruber and Ari Daniel Pinchot chronicles Yonatan Netanyahu’s impressive career in the Israeli army and special operations unit which was abruptly ended when he was the only Israeli commando killed in the daring raid he led on Entebbe Airport in the summer of 1976 to free Jewish hostages from German and Palestinian terrorists.
Comprised primarily of excerpts from his eloquent letters, interviews with his confidantes, fellow soldiers, family members, and Israeli leaders, and newsreel and television footage, the film confirms Yoni’s public reputation as a courageous patriot who modeled those virtues to his subordinates. It also reveals how his commitment to his country contributed to the failure of his first marriage and inhibited him from remarrying.
Biographical documentaries tend to idealize admirable figures by focusing only on their positive attributes. From the perspective of the tumultuous events that shaped Israeli history between 1967 and 1976, Yoni’s subordination of his private life and his revulsion towards war seem a fair price to pay for the defense of Israel through conventional warfare and counterterrorist missions. Though he repeatedly wished that Israel’s continued existence would not have to depend on military force, he considered Jewish sovereignty the only alternative to the vulnerability of Jews in the Diaspora. He personified the most basic rationale for Zionism
As a historian, I expect documentary films to provide more specific explanations for why people behave as they do. While the film includes clips from home movies and recollections of Yoni as a youngster from his father Benzion, brothers Benjamin and Iddo, and childhood friends, it never explores whether Benzion exerted any political influence on Yoni. (I admit I don’t know the answer to this question either). All the viewer learns of Benzion is that he was a renowned scholar who edited the Encyclopedia Hebraica, and authored a history of the Spanish Inquisition.
Benzion, however, was an ardent Zionist Revisionist who served as Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s secretary for a number of years. Dedicated to a Greater Israel, he signed a petition opposing the United Nations’ Partition Plan for Palestine in 1947. He adhered to the lachrymose vision of the Jewish past as a “history of Holocausts.” Bibi obviously absorbed much of his father’s worldview, but the movie attributes Yoni’s Zionism to the Tzofim, the Israeli scouting movement.
Yoni moved to Philadelphia where his father was conducting research, but found life in the United States meaningless. When he returned to Israel to serve in the IDF, he felt that soldiering forged his emotional bond to the land of his ancestors. He distinguished himself in battle during the Six Day War. Recovering from a severely wounded elbow, he decided to pursue an academic career and went to Harvard with his bride Tuti. Concern over border skirmishes with Egypt prompted him to reenlist in the army in 1969. Soon thereafter, he joined the Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s special operations “unit.” The clandestine and demanding nature of this work kept him apart from Tuti. When she had a miscarriage and the infant died, Yoni was away on duty. This contributed to their divorce.
The film then shifts to Yoni’s valiant leadership of his “unit: in close combat against Syrians in Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War. Reflecting on shooting his enemy soldier pointblank, he wrote, “It adds a whole dimension of sadness to a man’s being. The film omits any mention of Yoni’s prior participation in Operation Spring of Youth as a member of an elite team recruited from the “unit,’ its naval equivalent, and the Mossad which assassinated PLO and Black September leaders in Lebanon as a reprisal for the slaying of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. I realize that those involved may have vowed never to discuss what happened, but their pledge isn’t binding on the filmmakers.
The remainder of the film builds up to Operation Entebbe, the background of which is previewed in several earlier segments of the film. Those previous scenes not only interrupt the chronological flow of the narrative, but disclose the outcome to those in the audience who may not be familiar with these events. It was difficult for me not to watch the Israel protests against negotiating with the terrorists without thinking about the lopsided deal Bibi struck with Hamas to gain the release of Gilad Shalit.
The profound sense of loss expressed by those nearest to Yoni, particularly by his brothers, is poignant. Who knows what a charismatic, intelligent, and sensitive man like Yoni might have achieved had he not been sacrificed in the vicious cycle of violence that has defined Israeli and Palestinian relations. Follow Me assures what he did accomplish will not be forgotten, even though it might have probed deeper into his life and times.
Lawrence Baron recently retired from being the Nasatir Professor of Modern Jewish History at San Diego State University. He is the author of Projecting the Holocaust into the Present: The Changing Focus of Contemporary Holocaust Cinema (Rowman and Littlefield: 2005) and editor of The Modern Jewish Experience in World Cinema (Brandeis University Press: 2011). He may be contacted at email@example.com
Short URL: http://www.sdjewishworld.com/?p=30466