Contemplating Yonatan Netanyahu
by Jonathan Rosenblum
July 6, 2001
More that twenty years ago, I was asked to join a group of students being interviewed at Ohr Somayach yeshiva by a Time magazine reporter, who was working on an article on ba’alei teshuva. That group consisted of those with the flashiest secular credentials – those who had spent their lives mastering the art of impressing others. We talked easily and eagerly of how we had detoured from the success track laid out for us and why.
Joining that group was one Israeli, a former Navy commander. He was older than the rest of us, and his dark eyes seemed to burn everywhere he looked. His words were few and chosen with great care. At one point, he told the reporter that there are laws of spiritual dynamics in the universe drawing every Jew to the Torah. When the reporter rephrased what he was saying to, "So, you’re saying that you enjoy Torah study very much,’’ the former commander fixed him with that same intense look and shook his head slowly to indicate the reporter had understood nothing. He was not describing a subjective experience, he explained, but the spiritual equivalent of the Laws of Thermodynamics, laws of universal application.
Listening to the former commander’s deliberate, carefully chosen words, I felt myself blushing in embarrassment. Compared to him, I was still a glib kid, too eager to please and impress.
Reading the Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu cover to cover last week, I experienced a similar feeling of embarrassment, the feeling of mediocrity forced to confront greatness. Yonatan Netanyahu, it would seem, was never young. Both in style and content, there is remarkably little difference between the letters written as a 17-year-old American high school senior and as a thirty-year-old senior commander. The same authorial voice is instantly recognizable.
There was nothing about him of Ortega y Gasset’s youth "everything in potentiality and nothing in actuality,’’ perpetually poised between mutually exclusive doors, unable to pass through one. Gifted in so many ways and attracted to so much, he nevertheless had no trouble making choices: "I don’t regret the crossroads I’ve passed. Once past the crossing, I’m on my own way. And if there is more beauty, more sunflowers along the road, I didn’t take, I still don’t regret it, because it wasn’t my road.’’
Responsibilities and choices were not something to be pushed off to a distant future filled with imagined achievements. Still only 17, he demanded of himself "to be ready at every moment of my life to confront myself and say – this is what I have done.’’
In his early 20s, he already describes himself as having "ceased to be young’’ and of having lost "the sense of harmony that characterizes a young man’s world.’’ Above all, a heavy sadness had grown somewhere within as his contemplated "a war that has no end’’ because we are confronted by a "primitive foe who’s after blood and vengeance, whose behavior is guided not by logic or reason but by dark whims and emotions.’’
He had little need for others – not for their approval nor even their companionship. From basic training he wrote his mother, "My genuine friends . . . are, as always, few. But that doesn’t bother me in the least. I don’t need people just to share my life.’’ Perhaps he knew from an early age that he would have to depend on himself. From the time he left America to start basic training until his death, he seems to have seen his father only at intervals of years, and his mother only slightly more frequently.
Only with his brother Bibi, raised in the same home with the same demands, did he find a complete connection, describing him in one letter as "the only true friend I ever had.’’
The goals he set for himself were fully internalized, not foisted upon him by peer pressure. There was something more Greek than Jewish about his continual search for greater challenges. The attraction of the paratroopers was that it imposed more demands than any other branch of the IDF. Yoni revelled in the knowledge that he "could endure and persevere, both physically and emotionally way after everyone else broke down.’’ After his first time under enemy fire, he was thrilled to find that he had maintained "the same degree of concentration, the same sense of judgment, and the same grasp of reality’’ as on any other day.
In the army, he found kindred spirits: Men of "initiative and energy, who break conventions when they have to; who . . . are always searching for new ways and answers.’’ He loved the brotherhood of the elite units, as they "coalesced into a single body’’ after only the strongest and most competent remain.
The letters are filled with a deep commitment to the Jewish people – "I believe that the Jewish people’s survival depends upon Israel, . . . and that Israel’s survival depends upon us [i.e., the IDF]’’ – and with deep love of the Land whose soil and mountains and valleys he loved to feel beneath his feet on long navigational hikes. Yet they are devoid of any references to Torah or Judaism or even to concrete events of Jewish history, despite his father’s eminence as a Jewish historian.
That perhaps explains why the love of Land and people Yoni so eloquently expressed have proven so difficult to transmit to successive generations. Already 25 years ago, Yoni was profoundly apprehensive about the future of the Jewish State, and whether there would be sufficient will to carry on when "every day brings its toll of dead and wounded, acts of murder and mine-laying, exchanges of fire along the front lines, and the shelling of settlements.’’
Above all he worried about those who deluded themselves into thinking that the Arabs would abandon their basic aim of destroying the State: "They want to believe so they believe. They do not want to see, so they shut their eyes.’’
A great rabbi recently remarked to me that some people have a greater capacity for self-sacrifice because their souls come from a higher root. As a consequence, they are less connected to this world than the rest of us, for their true place is in a higher world.
It is impossible to read The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu without believing that his was one of those higher souls.
Related Topics: Biographical - Jonathan Rosenblum
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