Just before midnight of July 3/4, 1976, four Hercules transports of the Israeli Air Force landed without warning at Entebbe Airport, Uganda. They had flown the 2500 miles from their home bases nonstop and were carrying a force of Israeli commandos, a team of doctors, and a collection of assault vehicles. The oddest was a Mercedes, resprayed to resemble the presidential limousine of Field-Marshal Idi Amin. It was first off the lead aircraft and its occupants, blacked up as Uganda riflemen, were led by the commandos’ senior officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Netanyahu.

Driving first to the control tower, the Mercedes party killed the Ugandan guard there with silenced weapons, as they stood at the salute in the belief that the car was indeed Amin’s, and then swung to the old International Terminal. Inside it a band of Palestinian and German terrorists had been holding hostage eighty-three Israelis, twenty French Jews, and the crew of an Air France airliner since they had hijacked it a week before. In one minute forty-five seconds of shooting, seven of the terrorists were killed and the other three overpowered. Two hostages were killed in the crossfire. Five others were wounded. So also were four of the commandos; and in a belated outburst of shooting between the commandos and the Ugandans, a stray bullet caught Colonel Netanyahu in the back. He died shortly afterward.

The story of the raid, of the escape by plane of the surviving hostages and their rescuers, and of the safe return of the whole party to Kenya and then to Israel on the morning of July 4 broke as a sensation almost without parallel in the postwar world. Like that of President Kennedy’s death, it came as news which would recall ever after to the hearer the place, time, and circumstances in which he learned it, so complete was its unexpectedness. But unlike the news from Dallas, and so heightening its impact, was the quality of improbability, mystery, almost fantasy that it carried with it. The world had speculated for a week on the terrorists’ intentions, Amin’s complicity, and the likelihood of a massacre. It had simply not entertained the notion that the Israelis might bring off a rescue. And even after they had done so, the raid continued to seem a piece of wizardry, of mythic legerdemain in the tradition of Ulysses against Cyclops, rather than an act of war.

“How?” was the question, a stream of hows—how did the commandos get there, land unobserved, overcome the terrorists, avert the reaction of the Ugandans, refuel their aircraft, get clean away without pursuit or retribution? The “Whos?” were left unraised. For all the tarnishing of Israeli military glister by the setbacks of 1973, Europeans and Americans were still apt to regard Israeli soldiers as supermen, so that the raid in their eyes merely restored a reputation never really compromised. Israeli military practice reinforced their incuriosity. Zahal, the Israeli Defense Force, makes a fetish of secrecy and anonymity. Its units are never identified, or only in such a way as to deliberately mislead. Its gallantry medals are awarded without publicity, since equal bravery is officially expected of all servicemen. Colonel Netanyahu was briefly eulogized by the minister of defense on July 6. But by the world outside he was remarked, if at all, merely as the raid’s only casualty, a victim of bad luck.

Within Israel, in the five years since the rescue, victim has become hero. The mechanism of the transformation has been an edition of his letters, collected by his two younger brothers and now issued in an English translation with an introduction by Herman Wouk. Wouk’s involvement is understandable; though he has become in later life an interpreter of Judaism and Zionism to the Gentiles, he of course made his name as a novelist of the theme of leadership. The Netanyahus’ fraternal pietas was equally to be expected, for the family belongs to Zionism’s intellectual elite. “Yoni”‘s father is professor of history at Cornell and editor of the Encyclopaedia Judaica but so deeply committed to the idea of the Return that he abandoned his American career during his child-raising years to bring up his sons in Jerusalem. Yoni himself returned voluntarily from the United States to perform his national service in Zahal and later abandoned his undergraduate course at Harvard after the 1967 war to continue military duty in the homeland.

Perhaps we may therefore see him as a hero for whom Israel—or at least Begin’s Israel—was waiting. Judaism’s pantheon has been sparsely populated with men of the sword in modern times. Saul and David bulk as large as Abraham and Isaac in the Old Testament; but it is not as warriors that Jews figured in the Diaspora. Indeed one of the ways of defining a Jew in medieval and Renaissance Europe was to say that he was not a soldier and in the modern period that he could not be an officer. The Hapsburg army made exceptions to the rule: Jews, who formed about 5 percent of the population under Franz Josef, provided 15 percent of his reserve officers—of whom one was Sigmund Freud. Trying to attract a waiter’s attention in a military café one day he called out that he might yet become a general; and a Jew, von Schweitzer, did indeed rise to Feldmarschalleutnant. But the Prussian army generally excluded Jews, the French army accepted such an officer as Dreyfus reluctantly, and the tsars would not commission them at any price. The grounds for exclusion were claimed to be religious. Though Lutheran Balts proliferated in the higher Russian ranks, Sabbatarianism was held to disqualify the orthodox from a profession which worked on Saturdays. The disqualification did not apply to the poor, who under Nicholas I were widely conscripted as a means of converting them forcibly to Christianity. But there was almost no route along which a Jewish private could rise even as far as second lieutenant. Joseph Trumpeldor, who lost an arm winning the St. George Cross at the siege of Port Arthur, was made only a reserve officer for his exceptional exploit.


To the halutzim, the labor pioneers of eastern Jewry who sought redemption for their people in the fields of Eretz Israel, Trumpeldor became a standard-bearer and, after his death at the hands of Arabs in the defense of Tel Hai in 1919, a sanctified martyr. His vision, of a community of soldier settlers dedicated to the defense of a country won from its soil by the plough, they thought revolutionary. It was, on the contrary, of the greatest antiquity, a rediscovery of the idea of ponos which underlay the Greek view of life. Ponos (toil) was what distinguished the farmer from the artisan, “who worked at home like a woman,” and so fitted him for war. Because the kibbutz was a collective rather than an individual enterprise, it would be wrong to regard the halutzim as hoplites reborn. There was nothing socialist about the Greeks. But Haganah, the military force which the halutzim raised under the Mandate to defend their settlements, nevertheless pursued aims which the ancient world would have perfectly understood.

There was, however, an alternative and quite contrary principle to ponos simultaneously at work in the military rebirth of the Jews: that of “toughness.” Personified in the shomrim of ha-Shomer, the society of watchmen who appointed themselves to protect the settlements of the pre-Mandate years, it sought to establish the Jew as a sort of Hebrew Bedouin, whose romantic garb the shomrim affected. Later it would flow into the military movements which detached themselves from Haganah in the 1930s, the Irgun and Lehi (the Stern Gang). Their philosophy, formed by Jabotinsky, was expansionist: they wanted an Israel large enough for the whole of world Jewry. Their ethos was adventurist: while Haganah confined itself to the defense of the kibbutzim against Arab terrorists, Irgun set about winning the involuntary respect of the Arabs by counterterrorism. The logic of their creed would eventually drive them into open conflict with the British, whom the Stern Gang continued to fight even while Hitler was killing their brethren in Europe.

It was out of these disparate elements that in 1948 the new state had to form its national army. The task was further complicated by the fact that Haganah had by then raised its own “tough” unit, the Palmach, which abounded in strong characters, notably Dayan, Rabin, and Allon. None, however, equaled in toughness David Ben-Gurion who drew on his own little-remarked military past to impose yet a third model on the emergent force. In 1918 he had served briefly in the Jewish Legion, which the British had raised to swell the army they fielded against the Turks in the Middle East. Short-lived though the Legion was, Corporal Ben-Gurion had been indelibly impressed by the professionalism of its British leadership and it was as a professional army that he determined Zahal should evolve. Its conscription system was modeled on that of Switzerland, its tactics on those of the Wehrmacht—a borrowing which Zahal disguised by claiming to have learned blitzkrieg from the writings of Liddell Hart and J.F.C. Fuller. But its essential character was to be that of an apolitical, war-fighting army of the sort which had defended British sovereignty since the seventeenth century.

Zahal’s victories in the four wars fought since 1947 demonstrate the soundness of Ben-Gurion’s decision. Neither an agricultural militia nor a military elite could have won the battles of the Jerusalem Road, the Mitla Pass, the Golan Heights, or Chinese Farm. Even more emphatically, neither could have given to the people of the Return the self-confidence which expunged the centuries when a Jew could not be a soldier. Yet Ben-Gurion’s amalgam did not altogether succeed in obliterating the separate roots from which Zahal sprang. In Nahal, the “Fighting Pioneer Youth,” the kibbutzniks have preserved the spirit of Trumpeldor. And in a re-current Zahal type, of whom Ariel Sharon is the most prominent, Jabotinsky’s ideal of the “tough Jew” persists. Yoni was clearly one of that type. His letters epitomize their mood and outlook.


Thus we find him at the outset attending the reinterment in Jerusalem of Jabotinsky’s remains, from which Ben-Gurion pointedly absented himself. It is clear that he has absolutely no interest in the Arabs, except as enemies or as casually encountered aliens whose fear of his uniform and weapons he takes for granted. He is no intellectual. His father’s scholarship is a source of pride but at the age of twenty-eight he has still not got his BA and his many enrollments at universities—Harvard, Brandeis, the Hebrew University—seem flirtations with learning. He is not religious. Jewish ritual pleases him but the Bible is a source of military history rather than spiritual refreshment. He is not a family man. Brothers and parents are much written to but he is more often away from them than with them; and his brief marriage is put aside without apparent regret. He does not even much cultivate friendship. “The truth is that I don’t have many friends and never did.”

His heart belongs elsewhere: to Zahal and the land it defends. “Zahal is the only thing which stands between ourselves and the slaughter of our people as in days gone by.” So Zahal must be served with total dedication. “I prayed for rain so that I could train with my soldiers in the mud. It’s at least twice as hard…. Your entire body actually freezes! At times when I was a green soldier and we went on long marches in the mud and everyone was cursing away, I’d feel content and start to laugh.” This combination of endurance and competitiveness assured his advancement at every stage. Selected for the paratroops, he is then selected for officer school with the highest possible marks, named outstanding cadet at officer school, promoted lieutenant, captain, major, and lieutenant-colonel ahead of time and his contemporaries, awarded (in secret) the Distinguished Combat Citation for bravery in the 1973 war and chosen finally to command what the book coyly calls “an elite unit” (Zahal’s obsessive secrecy again) but is the Israeli equivalent of the British SAS.

And wherever his service in Zahal takes him he draws deep pleasure from his encounter with the land and the relationship he establishes with it. “I have seen and felt the beauty of the Judean desert, the might of straight steep cliffs rising vertically for hundreds of feet with only one thin white trail winding through them like a tiny trickle of water, the beauty of dry parched earth and the whiteness of the salt caked on the stones, the strength and power of the fortress of Massada, and the life of our ancient ancestors in the oases of the desert…. Until now, I never felt the country…. I knew the country existed, that I was living in it and that, if the need arose, I would fight for it. But really to feel the place, the soil, the mountains and valleys of Israel—this sensation I have now experienced for the first time.”

There is a very great deal of this kind of description in the letters (“A few Saturdays ago I visited the Biblical Gideon and saw the pool that’s mentioned in Samuel II”), but even more of the toughness. Indeed the toughness is relentless: night marches, parachute drops, raids into Jordan, treks across the desert, nights on a bare mountain, freezing sentry duty outside a beleaguered kibbutz, and always aches, bruises, cuts, scrapes, scratches, and the occasional real wound. Sometimes a literary or tourist reference interrupts the litany: “Buenos Aires is an interesting city—and even an odd one, full of contrasts”; “Saroyan is a wonderful simple writer, who loves people and shows them in a special light.” But it is quickly back to rucksacks, maps, compasses, mess tins, pup tents, dropping zones, rifle ranges, Uzis, and boots, boots, boots marching up and down again, from Nablus to the Negev, from Jerusalem to Jericho.

Herman Wouk assures us that these letters amount to a “remarkable work of literature, possibly one of the great documents of our time,” and that they are written in a “simple pure Hebrew” which gave him such pleasure that for a time its reading replaced for him his daily study of scripture and the Talmud. Well, we must take his word for it. But it takes some believing. There are one or two passages of power and pace, notably those describing his first parachute drop. But the general effect is tediously repetitive and faintly repellent.

And yet at the same time the letters are insistently reminiscent of something familiar and not unpleasing—familiar, that is, to a non-Israeli and non-Jew. What, the reviewer wondered, could it be? The answer was some time coming, and then prompted only by the surroundings in which he was reading. It could have been the Macnaghten Library at Eton. As it happened, it was the biography room in the Sandhurst library. Both are amply stocked with a sort of book not commonly found elsewhere. It is highly distinctive of its period and country of origin. I had not had the imagination to recognize that it might have its counterpart elsewhere.

War Letters of a Public Schoolboy, My Warrior Sons, War Letters of Fallen Englishmen, John Hugh Allen and the Gallant Company. It was just such a book that Mr. Samgrass came to Brideshead to edit for Lady Marchmain, “a memorial book for circulation among her friends about her brother, Ned, the eldest of three legendary heroes all killed between Mons and Passchendaele,” from a quantity of poems, letters, and articles he had left. How touching they seem in their sentiments, full of self-sacrifice, patriotism, and love of the English countryside. How distinctively British in their flow of allusions to our emotional geography—the close at Shrewsbury at evening, Great Tom tolling over Peck, wickets falling at Fenner’s, the shades gathering under the chestnut in Balliol garden quad. Englishmen are still brought up on this sort of imagery, if not directly then by osmosis. Indeed for Englishmen of a certain class it is impossible to escape its effect. It does not, of course, describe an England they inhabit. But it seems to describe a real England, and not one for which they are conditioned to feel the least need to examine critically.

But what, one wonders, would Yoni have made of it? Would not Lady Marchmain’s three brothers stand for him as symbols of those arrogant, heartless imperialists who denied his people the fulfillment of that purely sentimental Zionism with which Balfour and his like first teased them and then tired? And would not the moan of doves in immemorial elms seem to him as artificial an image as his own re-creation of “the young men playing beside the pool of Gideon” does to us? And what would an Arab make of either book, Yoni’s or the Marchmains’? Works of interlopers both, no doubt.

Yet Yoni’s death was undoubtedly heroic and the mission on which he died an act of such patent justice that only the invincibly perverse or intransigent could forebear to cheer its success. How, then, does the Self-Portrait fail in its appeal? In the same way that, one suspects, the apotheosis of the very young must always fail: by depicting a life cut short both as an apprenticeship for a certain sort of death and at the same time as a termination of promise unfulfilled. Contradiction apart, neither is desirable, as the British know to their cost. By living for sixty years with the myth of the Lost Generation, they persuaded themselves that the disaster of the First World War could only be thought of as the Great Sacrifice, and that their subsequent failure in the world derived from the loss of those who had made it. One would wish on no country—let alone tiny and vulnerable Israel—that its people should make the same mistake of consecrating their military past and canonizing their dead.

This Issue

April 16, 1981