Thursday, September 06, 2012


The deep emotions that swell within the heart after reading about a life filled with self-sacrifice, commitment and dignity should be more than transitory. We must try as hard as possible to come away from such an examination reaffirming our desire to live valuable, useful and meaningful lives. I have just finished reading a collection of Jonathan Netanyahu's letters, Self Portrait of a Hero. It is easy to feel the pride and happiness of a young man, soldiering for the first years of his adult life, but this light-hearted feeling melts into the melancholy of a life cut short, of a person of value who was taken from his nation all too soon. The depth of his thought, the nobility of his soul, will live on in those who read this book and allow themselves to be affected by it. Two main thoughts strike me amongst many note-worthy aspects of Yoni.

First, I point out the development of his feelings towards the land of Israel. Obviously from the beginning, Yoni drank from his father's brand of Zionism, influenced by Jabotinsky. However, at the start, Yoni's passion about the army seems commonplace; though he writes with a maturity beyond his young years, his thoughts center around the excitement of being a soldier, and, along with his comrades, becoming an effective fighting unit. However, as time goes on, through his time at Harvard and his experiences during the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, Yoni develops a deeper appreciation for why he fights, and this appreciation keeps him in the army past when he would have stayed otherwise. He writes about his understanding that the IDF needed good officers such as him (p 173). He also sees this as a national responsibility, that our nation's homeland be defended against its enemies. He could not see himself returning to civilian life while Israel needed its reserves called up.

Yoni did not live in a dream-world; he saw many deficits in Israeli society, and sometimes wrote about his memories of the US with longing. He wished his homeland would develop the type of economic and entrepreneurial spirit common in the US. It is a shame that he did not live to see these ideas blossom in Israel in the late 90's. However, he was committed to Israel's security ahead of his own comfort. This continually deepening feeling of responsibility towards his people and homeland is instructive.

This leads into the second aspect of Yoni that is so important, and I think it is representative of Israel as a country and a people, in general. Yoni stands as a metaphor for the entire people of Israel. He constantly writes, piningly, of his desire to go back to school and finish his degree. However, every time he brings it up, he follows it up with the realization that at this critical point in Israel's security situation, how can he leave his men and the army? In a peaceful reality, Yoni would have been a scholar or some other highly educated person. But he had to constantly put this aspect of his personality and desires to the side, to wait for the future possibility of peace. He placed the needs of the country over and above his own fulfillment.

Israel, struggling to develop and maintain a viable economy, an innovative medical community, and a unique culture, persistently must do so with both arms tied behind its back. How many more medical breakthroughs, how many more Nobel Prizes, how much more robust an economy, would Israel have, if its gargantuan military budget could be used elsewhere? Israel's full measure of self-actualization and self-expression is constantly hampered by its need to, with the setting of the sun each and every evening, ensure that it is not destroyed by its enemies by the dawn of the next morning. Yoni's letters intimate this existential struggle, the eternal Jacobian wrestling match with the angel of Esav, always defending our existence, and never allowed by the world to lay to rest the question of its very right to live. Yoni lived a life stunted by military necessity - he did not revel in it, he suffered it, and met it with pride, proud to be a Jew defending Jews in Israel. He left behind many many plans, things he wished deeply to do, but did not, in order to make sure Israel would survive.

Yoni was dealing with a personal crisis of sorts in the weeks immediately before the raid on Entebbe where he died. The men who were with him speak of a peaceful calm that seemed to hold him, and some said that he seemed to know he was not going to come back. Perhaps the realization that he could never fulfill his personal dreams with full peace of mind, as long as the fate of Israel hung in the balance, led him to an ironic peace during this last fateful mission.

And thus, a nation of farmers, scientists, doctors, scholars, and manual laborers continue to struggle, forced to take up the rifle and defend what every other nation on earth takes for granted: the right to exist.

May his memory be instructive to us, and a blessing to our people. יהי זכרו ברוך, ה' יקום דמו.