Film in NH festival takes closer look at life of Yoni Netanyahu
In terms of good guys and bad guys, you couldn't make up more perfect characters for a Hollywood action adventure movie. Yoni was a Harvard-educated warrior-poet, an elite soldier who often signed letters to his parents with "Kisses."
Idi was a brutal dictator who fed some of his own ministers to crocodiles and was widely accused of being a cannibal.
The two men's lives intersected on July 3, 1976, at the Entebbe Airport in Uganda.
Dictator Idi Amin, who had given himself the title of "Conqueror of the British Empire," was sheltering (with armed support) Palestinian terrorists who hijacked an Air France plane and were holding 103 hostages, most of them Israeli or Jewish citizens from other countries. Israeli commando Yonatan "Yoni" Netanyahu was in charge of the rescue mission.
A new documentary, "Follow Me," examines how "Operation Thunderbolt" succeeded against all odds with original battlefield audio and eyewitness accounts. All but four hostages were brought home alive. All the terrorists and numerous Ugandan guards were killed, while the Israelis lost one soldier: Yoni. In military lore, the story remains as jaw-dropping as U.S. Navy SEAL Team Six's covert mission to kill Osama bin Laden.
"Follow Me," which makes its local premiere at the New Hampshire Jewish Film Festival in Concord on April 14, also explores why Israel mourned Yoni on the same scale as John F. Kennedy's assassination in the United States. Paralleling the Kennedy family story, Yoni's younger brother, Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu later went into politics and is now the Prime Minister of Israel.
To New Hampshire audiences, however, the Yoni Netanyahu story contains an additional layer of nostalgia. Fifty years ago, the future military hero was a summer camp counselor lounging on the shores of Amherst's Baboosic Lake.
Working at Camp Young Judaea for eight weeks in 1963, the 17-year-old Yoni was an Israeli Boy Scout sent to teach outdoors skills, lead hikes and teach Hebrew.
After his death at age 30, a collection of Yoni's letters to his family and friends became a best-selling book in Israel. Several of the letters were written from Camp Young Judaea.
"The rest of this letter will be scrawled because I am now riding in a pickup truck which is taking me and my campers to dine at a restaurant as a prize for being selected the 'honor bunk,'" Yoni wrote from Amherst to his brother Bibi. "I'm not the only one who thinks that this is the bunk. Everyone else thinks so, too."
"To tell you that I enjoy being here would be superfluous, since you've read about it in every letter I've written so far. The truth is I'm longing to see you all," he added.
One of Yoni's co-counselors in Bunk 5 was Michael Sherman, who now is a real estate executive in Manhattan.
"Yoni enjoyed being the center of attention," Sherman recalls. "To say he was the leader of the camp would be an exaggeration, but he was certainly someone the campers looked up to. Everyone listened to him when he spoke, he was very warm and well liked. He had the whole package."
Another fellow counselor was Elliot Entis, who became a lifelong friend and kept in touch with Netanyahu until his death. Now the founder of a Massachusetts biotech company, Entis strengthened the friendship when he was an exchange student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and while he was a kibbutz volunteer in Israel during the 1967 Six Day War.
"The day after the Entebbe raid, I was living in Washington and picked up the Washington Post. Yoni's name jumped out at me. It was an unbelievable shock. I still have that newspaper," he says. "People remember his heroics, of course, but he was a lot of fun to be around. He had an infectious personality bubbling over with spirit."
"I remember him at camp looking ridiculous while swinging a baseball bat - it wasn't a game Israelis played - but he'd laugh at himself. He had such a positive outlook on life."
There's a small plaque honoring Netanyahu hanging in the Camp Young Judaea administration office, but his story is kept alive with each summer's new influx of campers. The Jewish culture/education cabin is named "Beit Yonatan" (Yonatan's House) and the kids watch "Raid on Entebbe," a 1977 movie starring Charles Bronson as Israeli commando Dan Shomron, Yaphet Kotto (the James Bond villain in "Live and Let Die") as Idi Amin, and Stephen Macht as Netanyahu.
Camp Young Judaea has enjoyed a long relationship with Israel over the years, hosting visits from historic leaders such as Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Foreign Affairs Minister Abba Eban. Campers participate in a 5-week "Gadna" leadership program in Israel when they reach age 16. The program also serves as a feeder system for recruiting new CYJ counselors.
"I'm thrilled to see there's a new documentary out celebrating Yoni's life," says CYJ co-director Marcy Kornreich. "Here in the U.S., he's kind of a forgotten hero. That's why we dedicated a cabin to him and that's why we talk about him with our campers."
Boys who stay in Bunk 5 each season are sleeping in that same "honor bunk" that Yoni led in 1963. The original cabin is still in great condition.
"I'm very proud that Yoni was part of the Young Judaea family," adds his former bunkmate Michael Sherman. "But we would have been fortunate to know him even if the Entebbe story had never happened."
"Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story" screens at 3:30 p.m., Sunday, April 14 at the Red River Theatres in Concord. Tickets are $10. For more information, visit: www.JewishNH.org.