The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu

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translated by Mikhteve Yoni. Introduction by Herman Wouk, with a foreword and afterword by his brothers Benjamin and Iddo Netanyahu. New York and Jerusalem: Gefen, 2001. 306 pp. $21.95.

This generous fascicle of letters traces the life of a contemporary hero whose entire life was dedicated to honoring and defending the nation of Israel. The son of a scholar -- his father's study of the Marranos is this reviewer's favorite work on that subject -- and a lawyer, and the brother of a major politician, he personified the new Israeli: unbowed, fierce in battle. In the words of Herman Wouk, he lived "bearing witness to the greatness of human nature in extremis." This volume's readers will find their sense of Israel's painful rebirth in the twentieth century enriched by these missives of a modern warrior.

The book is a collection of private correspondence written from Jonathan Netanyahu's seventeenth year as a homesick teenager in Philadelphia to the exhausted paratroop commander who dashed off the last letter to his sweetheart, Bruria, shortly before the remarkable raid on Entebbe Airport on July 4, 1976, which he commanded. Close to the conclusion of this near-miraculous military expedition, Yoni -- as he has come to be called by a grateful nation -- was shot to death by an Ugandan soldier. He was the only member of the rescue force to die. It was days before his thirtieth birthday.

When Israel was founded, Yoni was two. Although born in the United States, he was raised in the green byways of Jerusalem. His childhood was settled and happy. After two years (1963-65) in the United States and three years in Zahal (the Hebrew acronym by which the Israeli army is commonly called), the Six-day War (1967) threw Yoni into battle for the first time:

The battle is ended. I'm well and in one piece. We left the expanses of sand strewn with the bodies of the dead, filled with fire and smoke, and now we are once again in our own country. I am eaten up with worry for you. Perhaps in a few days, when it's all over and we're together again, perhaps then we'll smile. Right now it's a bit hard. When you smile, something inside hurts. Tonight, and maybe tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, we'll be shooting again, and again there'll be dead and wounded. I'll be all right, but I'm sorry for the others. (pp. 137-38)

He continued his education at Harvard University from 1967 to 1969.

While at Harvard, he writes his father that he is "not at all reconciled with being a civilian" (p. 173). "It's hard for me to bear the thought that I'm alive to others who protect me with their own bodies," he writes, "while I'm left to play the role of the civilian" (p. 171). He was, in short, a born warrior. He was also more, namely an astute critic of Middle Eastern Realpolitik: on page 169 (January 17, 1969), he writes:

The Arab world won't agree to let us live in its midst. …