Honoring Yoni Netanyahu
Israel’s 70th birthday will be celebrated in a few weeks, and to commemorate this momentous anniversary, my organization will be presenting the World Values Network’s Second Annual Elie Wiesel Award — posthumously — to Yoni Netanyahu.
We chose Yoni because we wanted to recognize someone who symbolized the best values of the Jewish people — courage, humility and sacrifice. Yoni exemplified all three. He also represents the thousands of Israelis who gave their lives to protect the Jewish people in Israel and abroad.
Yoni Netanyahu was born in New York City on March 13, 1946, the son of Benzion and Cela — who had moved to the United States to work for the New Zionist Organization. After Israel’s independence, the Netanyahus returned to Israel, where Yoni’s brothers Benjamin and Iddo were born.
There was no assurance that they would have a state to live in — because five Arab states attacked the newly-declared nation on the day of its Declaration of Independence. Israel’s military leaders thought their chances were at best 50-50, and American defense experts thought those odds were overly optimistic.
But the Jews prevailed against those odds because they knew victory was the only option. The Arabs had made clear their objective when the secretary-general of the Arab League declared: “It will be a war of annihilation. It will be a momentous massacre in history that will be talked about like the massacres of the Mongols or the Crusades.”
It was not mere hyperbole. A month before the invasion, an Arab force ambushed a Jewish convoy on the way to Hadassah Hospital, killing 77 Jews, including doctors, nurses, patients and the director of the hospital. Another 23 people were injured. The day before the state was proclaimed, 127 Jews in the village of Kfar Etzion were killed, most after they had surrendered.
Those were sadly not the last Jews to die fighting to ensure that all Jews would have a homeland. Israel would be forced to fight massive wars for its survival again in 1967 and 1973.
In between those two wars, Yoni wrote this in a letter to his parents:
In another week, I’ll be 23. On me, on us, the young men of Israel, rests the duty of keeping our country safe. This is a heavy responsibility, which matures us early. … I do not regret what I have done and what I’m about to do. I’m convinced that what I am doing is right. I believe in myself, in my country and in my future.
That third war, which began when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Yom Kippur 1973 — the holiest day on the Jewish calendar — was won thanks to the bravery, guile and indomitable spirit of the members of the Israel Defense Forces (a US airlift helped, too).
One of the fighters who distinguished himself during the fighting was Yoni Netanyahu, who commanded an elite Sayeret Matkal force that helped protect citizens in northern Israel following Syria’s attack on the Golan Heights. During the war, Yoni also rescued a soldier who was wounded behind Syrian lines. He was later awarded the Medal of Distinguished Service, Israel’s third-highest military decoration.
Yoni had written to his brother Benjamin, the current prime minister of Israel, a few weeks after the Arab invasion:
We’re preparing for war, and it’s hard to know what to expect. What I’m positive of is that there will be a next round, and others after that. But I would rather opt for living here in continual battle than for becoming part of the wandering Jewish people. Any compromise will simply hasten the end. As I don’t intend to tell my grandchildren about the Jewish State in the twentieth century as a mere brief and transient episode in thousands of years of wandering, I intend to hold on here with all my might.
And Jews and Israelis were not just in danger in Israel. Terrorists hunted them around the globe.
Just a year before the Yom Kippur War, Israelis competing in the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich were victims of Palestinian terrorists. Eleven athletes were murdered, but they did not go quietly. Israeli wrestling referee Yossef Gutfreund threw his nearly 300-pound body against the door to try to stop the Palestinians from forcing their way in. He was killed, but his bravery helped save several of his teammates and coaches.
Wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg allowed one of his wrestlers to escape by knocking out one of the intruders and stabbing another with a fruit knife, before being shot to death. Weightlifter Yossef Romano also attacked and wounded one of the intruders before being killed.
Israel has made sure that terrorists and others who threaten the lives of Jews anywhere know that they cannot do so with impunity. Israeli agents hunted down the Munich terrorists, and are believed to have killed eight of the 11. Israel also did not forget the Nazis who murdered six million Jews, capturing one of the architects of the Final Solution, Adolf Eichmann, and bringing him to face justice in Israel.
Israeli agents went all the way to Argentina to capture Eichmann, so it should not have been a surprise when Israel mounted an operation to save Jews and other hostages taken by hijackers in Uganda.
On June 27, 1976, an Air France plane flying from Tel Aviv to Paris with 248 passengers was hijacked by Palestinian and German terrorists, and diverted to the Entebbe airport. Israeli and other Jewish passengers were separated from the rest, and the other 148 hostages were released. The hijackers held 94 passengers hostage, along with the 12-member Air France crew, who heroically insisted on staying with the remaining passengers. The terrorists threatened to kill them all if a group of prisoners was not released from Israeli and other prisons.
Israel decided to mount a seemingly impossible rescue mission. Israeli transport planes carrying approximately 100 commandos would have to fly more than 2,500 miles, get past Ugandan soldiers, surprise the terrorists and free the hostages. Yoni Netanyahu was chosen to head the team that would lead the rescue.
On July 4, the Israelis landed at the airport in Entebbe. It took just 53 minutes to carry out the entire operation. All the hijackers, four hostages, and 45 Ugandan soldiers were killed — and 102 hostages were rescued. There was only one Israeli fatality — Yoni Netanyahu, who was killed by a sniper. The raid was posthumously renamed Operation Yonatan.
Defense Minister Shimon Peres eulogized Netanyahu during his funeral at Mount Herzl cemetery on July 6, 1976, saying: “a bullet had torn the young heart of one of Israel’s finest sons, one of its most courageous warriors, one of its most promising commanders — the magnificent Yonatan Netanyahu.”
We are proud to honor Yoni with the Elie Wiesel Award, and we are eternally grateful to Marion and Elisha for choosing Yoni — and personally presenting the award.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America” is the international best-selling author of 31 books, including his most recent, “The Israel Warrior.” For tickets The Champions of Jewish Values Awards Gala on 8 March, go to www.thisworldgala.com.