‘Follow Me’ tracks an Israeli hero’s journey to Entebbe
By Michael Fox
The unexpectedly lovely documentary “Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story” reminds us what an unequivocal Israeli hero looks like. A portrait of the life and times of the only Israeli casualty of the stunning long-distance rescue of the Jewish hostages at Entebbe in 1976, Ari Daniel Pinchot and Jonathan Gruber’s excellent film hearkens to a time before black and white blurred into a morass of gray.
“Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story,” which has received a very limited theatrical release, will open the 17th Annual Mandell JCC Hartford Jewish Film Festival at Spotlight Theatres on Front Street on Thursday evening, April 4.
Israel owned the moral high ground on the world stage after the massacre of its athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and continued to hold it as PLO operatives and sympathizers followed that “success” with a wave of international hijackings and hostage taking in the next few years. At home, however, national morale suffered from the heavy Yom Kippur War casualties, widely attributed to a lack of preparedness and poor decision-making.
When Palestinian terrorists seized an Air France jet en route from Tel Aviv to Paris and diverted it to Uganda, Israel stuck to its staunch policy of not negotiating for hostages. Bloodshed on a massive scale appeared inevitable until the surprise hit-and-run raid by an elite squad of Israeli soldiers — under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Yonathan Netanyahu — saved a hundred innocent lives and gave the nation a huge shot of pride and confidence.
This gripping chronology of events is intercut with Netanyahu’s compelling biography, which is largely unknown even to those with distinct memories of the exhilarating triumph at Entebbe. “Follow Me” is almost entirely in English and thus seems primarily aimed at American audiences, although it has no discernible political (or even generalized antiwar) agenda.
The eldest of three brothers, Yoni Netanyahu was born in New York City in 1946 and raised in the new state of Israel. His father was a professor and editor-in-chief of an encyclopedia, and scholars often visited their home. During Yoni’s adolescence, the family returned to the United States twice for year-plus sojourns to accommodate his father’s research.
“I yearn for a place that’s narrow, hot, filthy,” a frustrated Yoni wrote from the comfortable Philadelphia suburb where they resided when he was 16. “A place that’s mostly desert and one can scarcely find on a map of the world.”
It’s apparent from photographs and the recollections of his brothers (including Benjamin, the current prime minister), lovers and fellow soldiers that Yoni was charismatic, with the open face and striking good looks of a young Pierce Brosnan.
He belonged to a generation of youthful nation-builders, and his first allegiance was to the state of Israel — even if it meant relinquishing certain goals. Wounded in the Six-Day War, Yoni married his sweetheart and moved to Boston to attend Harvard. But the pull of Israel, and the pull of the army, was so strong that they returned after just one year.
Yoni somehow finagled his way back into the military, even though he couldn’t bend or straighten his injured arm, and he was assigned to a top unit entrusted with risky and usually top-secret missions. An exceptional commitment was required, and he willingly made it, even at the cost of his marriage.
There are telltale clues in his letters, and in his appreciation of poetry, that Netanyahu was a multi-dimensional person capable not just of leadership but reflection. Surprisingly, “Follow Me” doesn’t accentuate his lost potential for non-military contributions, nor does it invite any of the interviewees to contemplate how this deeply thoughtful, highly educated Zionist would have dealt with the invasion of Lebanon, or the construction of settlements on the West Bank.
“Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story” is a valuable, well-crafted and emotionally resonant addition to the video library of Israeli history, but it doesn’t stray beyond its boundaries. The ramifications of these events, and the ways in which Israel and the world have changed in the ensuing 35 years, are left to the viewer to mull.
The film doesn’t explore the impact of the Entebbe raid on Bibi’s politics, for example, although one might assume that the combat death of a revered older brother would make someone less willing to compromise with enemies.
We also might consider, without expressing anything but happiness for the younger soldier, how the notion of an Israeli hero has evolved from Yoni Netanyahu to Gilad Shalit.
The 17th Annual Mandell JCC Hartford Jewish Film Festival
In addition to “Follow Me,” the 17th Annual Mandell JCC Hartford Jewish Film Festival will feature 20 other award-winning films from eight countries that will be screened at several venues throughout the greater Hartford area. The Festival will run April 4 through April 15. A sampling of the films to be screened at the Festival include:
Koch – about the life of New York City’s bigger-than-life Mayor Ed Koch
Dolphin Boy – the story of an Arab teen healed by dolphins
B-Boy – the story of a break-dancing bar mitzvah boy from Fairfield
Ameer Got His Gun – the story of a Muslim Israeli soldier
Kinderblock 66 – Return to Buchenwald – the story of the boys who survived Buchenwald’s Block 66 who reunite on the 65th anniversary of their liberation.
Numbered – about Auschwitz survivors and their tattoos
Hitler’s Children – revealing the damning legacy facing descendants of Nazi generals.
Hava Nagila: The Movie – a melodic trip through the American Jewish folksong hall of fame, celebrating 150 years of Jewish culture and history.
Welcome To Kutshers – The Last Catskills Resort – about the golden years of the Borscht Belt.
Reporting On The Times — a student film exploring why the Jewish-owned newspaper buried its coverage of the Holocaust.
From Silence To Recognition — A retired dentist uncovers a trail of antisemitism at Emory University’s dental school in the 50’s.
The Day I Saw Your Heart – a French romantic comedy starring Melanie Laurent
All In – an Argentinean film about the love life of a poker-playing single dad
My Lovely Sister – a family saga
A Bottle in the Gaza Sea – the story of the secret online friendship between an Israeli girl and a Gaza boy
Beyond the Boundaries – Aspen’s ski slopes become life-lines for injured Israeli soldiers.
Tickets for all shows will be on sale Jan. 21, 2013 in person, via phone and by mail at the Mandell JCC. Seating is limited, advance purchase is recommended. Tickets to all films, except “Follow Me,” will be sold at the door subject to availability; all seating is general admission and program is subject to change. All events are under Hartford Kashrut Commission supervision.
For tickets, schedules, directions, and a Festival brochure call (860) 231-6316, (860) 236-4571, or visit the film festival website, www.hjff.org.