The morning America turned 200, I bounced out of bed ready to celebrate. For an entire year, the country had turned its attention to this most momentous bicentennial, and I didn’t want to miss a minute of it.
Reaching the living room, I found my parents glued to the television.
Must be some parade.
Except that it wasn’t a parade. My super-patriot father, in particular, was so engrossed in a news item that I knew better than to bother him. I got a bowl of cereal and sat at his feet.
My mother whispered to me that the Israelis had pulled off a shocking hostage rescue (of which I barely knew anything about). For most of that week, 105 Jewish hostages had been held at Uganda’s Entebbe airport, guarded by PLO and German terrorists, and aided by strongman Idi Amin and his army. Initially, Israel had agreed to listen to the terrorists’ demands—the release of 58 other terrorists held in prison.
When the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) made the strategic mistake of extending the deadline to Sunday morning, July 4, it gave Israel just enough time to craft a rescue plan and implement it, all the while officially negotiating with the terrorists. As usual, the world watched helplessly as Jews took steps to get their people home.
In the end, of the 200 commandos Israel sent on four transport planes to Entebbe, only one was killed. His death, however, continues to be a haunting reminder of the price of freedom.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Netanyahu, 30, commanded Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s most elite counter-terrorism unit. The IDF chiefs decided that “The Unit” would be the actual rescue force, and storm the terminal building at Entebbe where the hostages were rescued. In the opening seconds of what was otherwise a spectacular success, Netanyahu was shot and killed. He was leading his men.
The Israelis flew the hostages home to safety as a stunned international community sat, transfixed, in front of television sets.
My father, who taught me to love Israel and the Jews, marveled that day in a way I never saw him before or since. Our July 4 was made even more special by the freedom fighters of the IDF. It was an extraordinary moment.
All these years later, I remember each Fourth of July with a special fondness, for it was then that men and women made decisions for the moral good of the people. How I wish we had leaders like that today.
Netanyahu’s brother, Benjamin, now heads Israel’s government, and I consider him to be a very great man. His job is unimaginably difficult, yet Israel soldiers on, living and breathing, thriving and moving forward. Much to the eternal consternation of her enemies.
I once met two of the commandos who went to Entebbe, including Surin Hershko, who was shot in the neck and remains a quadriplegic. I asked him why he volunteered for Entebbe and he looked me right in the eye and said, “The people were in danger.”
My favorite passage, from my favorite book, Entebbe, reads thus:
“The rear door now began to open, even before the plane touched down, and Yoni could see the black waters of Lake Victoria. He told Amitzur to start the Mercedes. The starter, which had been repaired at the Unit’s base, did its job, and the engine came to life. Seconds later, they felt the jolt of the plane hitting the ground and could see the runway lights racing past them. Bukhris glanced at his watch. It was 11:01 p.m. Israel time—just after midnight on clocks in Uganda, the beginning of July 4, 1976.”
This day, today, I recall my father, who has been dead many years. I also recall the Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, that great Zionist who knew his sons (including the youngest, Iddo, who also served with The Unit) were men whose legacies would shine long after all of us are gone.
I knew the old man, and wonder what my own father would have thought of that, especially the day our own country celebrated a milestone birthday, as we huddled in front of the television, watching freedom half-a-world away.
Happy birthday, America. Happy life, Israel.