Growing up, I lived on a main street that was closed each July 4th. We had to remember to pull the car to a side street or give up going anywhere for many hours. For the most part, we pulled out the chairs and sat right on the curb as police marched by, girl scouts, politicians, fire trucks, boy scouts, baton-twirling teams, the high-school band and more.
Some threw us candy – we threw candy back and cheered them on. This was almost always the memory I have – that and the neighbors across the street preparing for their annual barbecue and sometimes going to see fireworks over the river.
One year stands out in my mind. I was 15 years old; it was 1976. We had gone to celebrate America’s 200th birthday by watching the tall ships sail down the Hudson River. We had brought a radio with us to listen to the broadcasters describe each ship…but more, days before Palestinian and German terrorists had hijacked a French plane and landed it in Entebbe, Uganda.
I was sick thinking of how they had separated the Jewish and Israeli passengers; releasing the Christian ones. That a German terrorist was involved in this separation brought home again the knowledge that the Holocaust will never really leave us.
I will forever remember that the French crew was offered the chance to leave with the Christians… and chose to stay. The deadline was approaching. The terrorists were threatening to kill the passengers. At any moment, I expected to hear that explosions and gunfire had been heard coming from the compound.
And as we sat watching the ships…the radio broke the news – explosions and gunfire. I thought I was hearing the end of what would be remembered as a terrible tragedy…and then there was confusion. It seemed a rescue attempt had been launched by Israel. Israel? But the hostages were in Africa, in Uganda?
It was, the radio quickly pointed out, a daring operation. The Israeli air force had flown 1,500 miles under the radar, undetected. They’d landed in Entebbe, and the hostages were free. The ships sailed quietly along the Hudson but those of us listening to that radio were distracted, desperate to hear what was happening. It was the first time in days I felt like smiling, like cheering – and as I looked at the ships, I thought – this is freedom…here on the river, and there in Africa.
My ears listened to the reports – some casualties but most of the hostages, almost all of them were free and being taken back to Israel…and my eyes followed the ships gracefully glided down the Hudson. My heart sang with such joy. I remember crying – but they were tears of relief. I had expected 100 dead, not 100 freed.
Yoni Netanyahu – commander of the operation and older brother of the current prime minister, gave his life bringing the passengers home. He epitomized the Israeli army officer. Follow me, he told his men. He led them in and was the first and only Israeli army soldier to fall. He died on the plane flying home, despite desperate efforts to save his life. There is a sense of peace knowing that in his last moments, he must have known that he had succeeded. He had risked all for the freedom of others, for his people – those who no one else but Israel could have saved.
July 4 has, for the last 37 years, been entwined with that memory. The tall ships and the radio. The crackling announcements of what was happening in Entebbe and the strange feeling of being in two places – both symbolizing the very same concept – a commitment to be free and to ensure the safety and freedom of all.
Freedom comes, too often, with a price. It can, at times, be a huge and painful one. But we are free today – in the United States and in Israel, because there are brave men and women who will risk all to fight against tyranny. Those who will march against evil, stand against the tide.
May God bless the United States of America with continued strength and freedom. May it always be a land where evil is wrong; where equality and justice are honored; where life is something to be valued.
May God bless the soldiers of America and the soldiers of Israel who fight so that we can all live our lives in freedom and know that if there are those who rise up against us, who attempt to take from us that which we value, that which we love, that which we are – our soldiers will protect us, fight for us, even fall for us.
And may God bless the memory of Yonatan Netanyahu, who died 37 years ago and is remembered, to this day, for the lives he saved, for the many he brought home.