Yonatan Netanyahu’s odyssey: From Harvard to Entebbe

This week marks the 35th anniversary of the operation to rescue hijacked Air France passengers in which the heroic commander was killed.

Yonatan Netanyahu (photo credit: Reproduction/Ariel Jerozolimski)
Yonatan Netanyahu
(photo credit: Reproduction/Ariel Jerozolimski)
Yoni Netanyahu was only a flash in Harvard’s pan, an undergraduate for a year and a summer, a hard working student living off campus, remembered by only a handful of people in Cambridge. But for those few, Netanyahu – the sole Israeli commando to die in the July 4 assault on the airport in Entebbe, Uganda – was a man worthy of profound admiration, an extremely intelligent person who, in the words of his one-time adviser, had a “truly unique sense of dedication that you just don’t find in people very often, regardless of their age.”
Netanyahu’s Harvard friends, like Seamus P. Malin ’62, his adviser in 1967-68 and the current director of financial aid, are wary that their eulogies be mistaken for run-of-the-mill posthumous praise, and they offer eerily similar descriptions of Netanyahu’s extraordinary qualities.
“This place does attract some pretty unusual individuals,” Malin says, “so it is not therefore a big deal to say you’ve come across somebody who is going to be a future senator or a bigwig in national or international life. But there are few people that you do meet whom you genuinely feel add to you as a person and really make being here and being associated with them in some way a fuller development of your own life.”
In that sense, Malin adds, Netanyahu’s death left an “emptiness because he was a person who lived a kind of exemplary personal life, without being schmaltzy about it, that made you kind of feel warm when you were with him. A conversation with him always made you think about your own life in a way you wouldn’t have thought about it if he hadn’t popped in to see you.”
Netanyahu evoked the same reaction from Robert E. Kaufmann ’62, the present assistant dean of the faculty for financial affairs who during 1967-68 served as resident adviser in Peabody Terrace, where Netanyahu lived with his wife: “I don’t think its fair to portray that I knew him in a very intimate way, but he was a person about whom you had very, very strong feelings.” There was, Kaufmann says, “the feeling that although he crossed your path only 10, 15 or 20 times, he really stuck there. He represented things many of us wish we were.”
Although born in New York in 1946, Netanyahu was raised from age two on in Israel, and his close friends remember him as “Yoni,” a nickname derived from the Hebrew equivalent of his first name.
In the early 1960s Netanyahu returned to the United States as his Polish-born father, a Judaic studies scholar who now heads Cornell’s department of Semitic languages and literature, took a teaching position at Dropsie College in Philadelphia. But after graduating from a high school outside the city in 1964, Netanyahu returned to Israel and entered the Israeli armed forces as a paratrooper.
But Netanyahu had not decided to become an Israeli career officer. To the contrary, according to one of his closest friends at Harvard, Elliot Z. Entis ’67, Netanyahu wanted very much to be a physicist before he came to Harvard… Netanyahu applied here, perhaps because of the presence of Entis, whom he had befriended at camp in New Hampshire during high school. Harvard accepted him enthusiastically; Kaufmann, who worked as an assistant director of admissions in 1967, describes Netanyahu as an “incredibly strong” candidate with a similarly impressive record and set of recommendations.
Netanyahu’s smooth transition from solider to academic was destroyed by the June 1967 Six Day War, an experience that “changed Yoni incredibly,” Entis says... Seeing many of his friends die set off a process of inner turmoil that ultimately would lead Netanyahu – who was himself seriously wounded in the left elbow during the fighting – to leave Harvard, to become a career officer, to “resolve that what he believed in he would have to live by,” as Entis says.
Once at Harvard, Netanyahu devoted most of his energy to studying, “getting his marriage and economics off the ground,” and “brooding” about the war, Entis says. There was no room left for extra-curricular activities, although Netanyahu ran every night and often took weekend trips in Vermont and New Hampshire.
BUT WHAT sticks in everyone’s mind is Netanyahu’s overwhelming concern for Israel. Repeatedly, when he dropped in to chat with Malin, Netanyahu would say, “I just shouldn’t be here. This is a luxury. I should be at home. I should be defending my country.” Thus Malin was not surprised in the spring of 1968 when Netanyahu dropped in to announce his plans to return, explaining that “Harvard is a wonderful place to be, but I just can’t justify being here…” That fall, Netanyahu enrolled at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but soon he was back in the army. He later wrote a friend in Cambridge, “Conditions in Israel at the time, however, were such to make the request for added military service, which was then addressed to former officers, too difficult to ignore.
Accordingly, on February 1, 1969, I volunteered for renewed service in the army, and I have stayed in it ever since.
During this period my rank was raised from first lieutenant to captain, and will be raised again to that of major on April 1 of this year. I am presently serving as a commander of a highly selective unit in the paratroopers.”
Entis visited Netanyahu in Israel in 1972 and found that he was largely unchanged. But the job had taken its toll; while Netanyahu had managed to avoid serious injury in his frequent antiterrorist activity, his wife, Tooti, was soon to leave him. “It was really a question of a man’s job getting in the way of his marriage,” Entis says.
Despite his return to Israel and uncommonly rapid rise in the military rank, Netanyahu never abandoned his hopes to return to Harvard. Repeatedly he wrote the College to check the procedures for re-entry, never completely accepting his friends’ assurances that he would be welcome back any time. Finally, in January, 1973, Netanyahu informed Harvard that he planned to resume his studies immediately after freeing himself from active duty the upcoming June.
And he did return that summer, enrolling in three half-courses – one over the conventional load. But, for reasons unknown, Netanyahu decided in August that he would not return in the fall. Less than two months later the October war erupted, again compelling Netanyahu to postpone his Harvard education. That December and again last summer Netanyahu wrote Harvard to say he hoped to return to Cambridge within two years. His 1973 correspondence said: “Only a few months ago I was still studying at Harvard and making plans for the following academic year. Obviously many things have changed since, and as a result I don’t feel myself free to stick to the initial plans we formulated together. The October War wasn’t the first war I went though, though it was certainly the hardest and most bitter. I came out of this round all in one piece (this time) though I lost many good and dear friends. Things aren’t quite the same as they were before... I still look forward to returning to Harvard sometime in the future, when things quiet down here.
“Judging from my present work in the Israeli Armed Forces I believe that at least a year or two will pass (if not more) before we meet again... I am working quite hard now; there is a lot to be done, a lot to reconstruct, a lot to reorganize, and there is little time for it. Perhaps peace will come after all.”
As late as last month Netanyahu was still planning the rest of his Harvard education, although his designs had been transformed by the intervening years and his commitment to the army. In early June, by ironic coincidence, Netanyahu was picked to give Thomas C. Schelling, Littauer Professor of Political Economy, a day-long tour of the Golan Heights. A friend of Schelling – who was in Jerusalem as a visiting professor to Hebrew University – had arranged the tour... So at 8:30 one morning Netanyahu showed up, having gotten a day’s leave and a military car.
During the 300-to-400-mile drive it came out, Schelling says, that the Israeli Lieutenant-Colonel had studied at Harvard.
The soldier, whom Schelling found to be an “exceptionally bright, devoted, intelligent and enthusiastic officer,” an “extremely impressive man,” confided to the professor that he still hoped to return to Harvard, perhaps with the financial help of the Israeli army. The two men exchanged addresses, Schelling offered his help in expediting Netanyahu’s return to Harvard, and the professor left “looking forward to seeing him again.”
Yoni Netanyahu loved math, and half his freshman year courses were in the natural sciences – Math 1a and 1b and Physics 1b and 12a. But, as he told Schelling during their day tramping around boulders, sitting atop tanks from a battalion Netanyahu had once commanded, and driving up the Jordan River valley to the Golan, there was not much he could do with math as a 30- year-old army officer. So Netanyahu hoped to concentrate on international relations when he returned, he told Schelling.
Signs of this shift were apparent in his studies in the summer of 1973.
Netanyahu’s three courses were all in Government – a survey of the history of political theory from Machiavelli to Marx, a conference course with Karl W.
Deutsch, Stanfield Professor of International Peace, and a study of governments of the Middle East. Netanyahu’s grades – two A-’s and one A – were apparently typical of his performance at Harvard. Entis, like Netanyahu’s other friends at Harvard, stresses that the Israeli was brilliant, an “incredibly good” chess player who intellectually “was a constant surprise.”
The last time Robert Kaufmann saw Netanyahu, during the Israeli’s sojourn in Cambridge after a mysterious visit to Latin America, he explained to the administrator why he had shifted to an interest in Government courses. He realized, he told Kaufmann, that “this crisis now is military, but the future is diplomatic.”
Netanyahu’s Harvard friends knew that he often spearheaded Israeli operations against Palestinian guerillas, and when they heard of such commando raids they usually thought of the short, stocky, thin-faced, steely-eyed Netanyahu, who, Malin says, “really looked the part of a guy you don’t mess around with.” But oddly enough, last week when those friends read about the raid that freed over 100 hostages being held by Palestinian sympathizers, their minds focused on the liberated, not the liberators.
Entis, who now works in a District of Columbia management consulting firm, didn’t consider that Netanyahu might have been involved until he saw his friend’s name on the front page of The Washington Post, news that “hit me right between the eyes.” But Entis’s reaction – like that of Netanyahu’s other friends who eulogized him last week – didn’t stop with tears. Entis’s devotion to his work in business is far weaker than Netanyahu’s was to Israel, and his friend’s death moved him to scrutinize his own life. “One of the problems in America is that we are a nation of relatively uncommitted people. Yoni had an ideal, and when he died, it made you think about your own life,” Entis explains. “It’s also a question of relative values. Yoni was willing quite literally to put his life on the line. That’s quite unusual. And there are even fewer people who derive that devotion internally.”
This article was originally published in ‘The Harvard Crimson’ and is reprinted with permission.