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Jonathan Netanyahu Memorial - Raid on Entebbe

Posted on Monday, June 1, 2015

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The story behind why Jonathan Netanyahu, brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin ("Bibi") Netanyahu, has a memorial in front of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, which is known as the "Synagogue of the American Revolution."


"On the eve of July 4, 1976, a small force of Israeli commandos landed at the airport in Entebbe, Uganda, in a daring assault. They freed 103 Jewish hostages held captive by Arab and German terrorists and Ugandan troops. Their commander was Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Netanyahu, who lost his life while leading the rescue. This memorial pays tribute to him and the historic mission named 'Operation Jonathan' in his honor." -- The Jonathan Netanyahu Memorial in Philadelphia

The History

The Netanyahu family has long history in the Philadelphia area dating back to Jonathan (Yonatan or “Yoni”) Netanyahu’s childhood. His father, Benzion Netanyahu, was a professor at Dropsie College (now the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania), and Jonathan graduated from Cheltenham High School which is located in the Philly suburbs. Jonathan grew up with two younger brothers, Benjamin and Iddo. Benjamin would go on to become the Prime Minister of Israel after being elected in 1996 and 2009. His youngest brother, Iddo, is a radiologist and writer.
Jonathan Netanyahu before Operation Entebbe
Jonathan was born in New York City, and he grew up in Israel before moving to Philadelphia. He joined the Israeli Defense Forces upon his graduation from high school, and he would go on to have a distinguished military career.  Jonathan served in the Six Day War as the commander of a paratroopers company and was injured in combat while rescuing a wounded soldier.  After the Six Day War, Jonathan briefly returned to America and began studying at Harvard University. However, within a year, Jonathan returned to Israel and once again served in the military, this time during the War of Attrition (1967-1970 which involved fighting between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, PLO and their allies).
Jonathan eventually joined the Sayeret Matkal, an elite Israeli special forces unit that both of his younger brothers would also serve within.  In the summer of 1972, Jonathan was appointed as the Deputy Commander of the Sayeret Matkal. While in this position, Jonathan commanded a number of anti-terrorism operations and served with distinction in the Yom Kippur War.

Operation Entebbe

When the United States was in the midst of the joyous Bicentennial Celebration marking America's 200th Birthday on July 4, 1976, there was a counter-terrorist event happening 7,128 miles away from Philadelphia in which the Israeli military was trying to save the lives of Israeli citizens being held captive in Africa.

On June 27, 1976, Air France's ill-fated Flight 139 departed Tel Aviv, Israel for Paris, France with a scheduled stop in Athens, Greece. Shortly after taking off from Athens, Air France 139 was hijacked by two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two Germans from the Revolutionary Cells. The terrorists directed the plane to land and refuel at Benghazi, Libya, before continuing on to pro-Palestinian Uganda. Landing at Entebbe, the terrorists were reinforced by three more extremists and were welcomed by Dictator Idi Amin.
After moving the passengers into the airport terminal, the terrorists released the majority of the hostages, keeping only the Israelis and Jews. The Air France crew bravely elected to remain behind with the captives. From Entebbe, the terrorists demanded the release of 40 Palestinians held in Israel as well as 13 others held around the world. If their demands were not met by July 1, 1976, the terrorists threatened to begin killing the hostages. On July 1, 1976, the Israeli government opened negotiations in order to gain more time. The following day a rescue mission was approved with Colonel Yoni Netanyahu in command.
When diplomatic avenues failed to secure the release of the hostages, Israel approved a rescue mission to be led by Jonathan named “Operation Entebbe.”  Late in the night of July 3-4, 1976, four Israeli C-130 transports approached Entebbe where 29 Israeli commandos unloaded a Mercedes and two Land Rovers.  Hoping to convince the terrorists that they were Amin or another high ranking Ugandan official, the commandos approached the airport terminal where the hostages were being kept.  Discovered by sentinels near the terminal, the Israelis quickly moved in to secure the hostage and kill the hijackers.  
While efforts to secure the hostages were successful, three hostages were killed in the cross-fire.  The remaining hostages were rushed back to their aircraft, and the Israeli commandos began loading the hostages to transport them to safety. As they were attempting their escape, Ugandan soldiers began firing upon them, and it was during this intense firefight that Jonathan was struck by a Ugandan sniper in the chest.  While the mission was an overall success when 103 hostages were freed, Jonathan unfortunately died.  Operation Entebbe was retroactively named “Operation Jonathan” in his honor.

What to See

The Jonathan Netanyahu memorial sculpture is located in the front of the Mikveh Israel Synagogue right off of Independence Mall.
Mikveh Israel is the oldest formal Jewish congregation in Philadelphia, and it is the oldest continuous synagogue in the United States. 
Onl July 4, 1976, Mikveh Israel was in the midst of celebrating a move to their then brand new Synagogue. Designed to coincide with the Bicentennial celebrations centered in Philadelphia going on at the time, this was supposed to be a joyous time for the congregation, but news of Jonathan’s death put a damper on the celebration. Due to Jonathan’s local ties to Philadelphia, it was decided that a memorial to Jonathan and Operation Entebbe should be placed in front of the then new Mikveh Israel synagogue.  
Jonathan Netanyahu Memorial in Philadelphia
In 1986, ten years after Jonathan’s death, the memorial was officially dedicated. The memorial was made by artist Buky Schwartz and donated by Muriel and Philip Berman. The abstract sculpture consists of four monolithic granite blocks. The massive blocks are roughly 7 feet high and 2 feet deep and wide and stand in a square formation. While separate blocks today, they originated from one block of stone.
Speaking at the Memorial's dedication, Jonathan’s brother, Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, explained why the memorial was important:  

“There are two reasons why this memorial is different. One is Philadelphia itself. It was a pivotal passage point in Yoni's life. It was a turbulent period for him when much of his character was formed. Month by month, he grew to appreciate the values of American life - openness, freedom, democracy. Those values stayed with him. And we are standing here just yards away from the cradle of American liberty, yards away from where the battle for freedom was fought.”

According to the Jerusalem Post, Steve Friedman, who helped conceive the Jonathan Netanyahu Memorial along with Benjamin Netanyahu, “The memorial signifies the incredible, bold, brave defiance of the IDF and the unit Yoni led in carrying out the rescue. The forces of creativity took over and succeeded. The tragedy of Yoni plus the symbolism of defiance against terror and the boldness of the IDF are the values embodied by the memorial. In this day and age of never ending terrorism, this memorial, this event, this recognition is critical.”

In 2012, a documentary film was made chronicling Jonathan's life, "Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story".

Insider Tips

Just a few yards away from the memorial to Jonathan Netanyahu stands another memorial dedicated to a Jewish military officer. A statue of Commodore Uriah P. Levy stands in front of Mikveh Israel facing Independence Mall. Levy, was the first Jewish Commodore in the United States Navy, and he served with distinction in the War of 1812. Born in Philadelphia, Levy wasted no time in becoming a sailor, running away at the age of 10 years old. Levy served as a cabin boy on various ships, returning to Philadelphia only to have his Bar Mitzvah at Mikveh Israel.  
Mikveh Israel as seen from Independence Mall with statue of Uriah P. Levy
By the time the War of 1812 began, Levy was the sailing master of a ship which seized more than 20 British Vessels before it was captured by the British. After his capture, Levy was imprisoned in Great Britain for the remainder of the war. After 16 months of captivity Levy returned to America and continued to rise up the ranks of the United States Navy. His impressive rise from lowly cabin boy to Commodore, then the highest position in the Navy, was made even more difficult due to the considerable anti-Semitism he faced. Levy was court-martialed 6 times and once killed a man in a duel, all relating to issues of anti-Semitism.
In his later life, Levy was influential in ending the practice of “flogging” in the United States Navy. Levy was also an admirer of Thomas Jefferson and purchased his historic Monticello Estate when he heard it had fallen into disrepair in 1834. Levy restored the estate and established it as the tourist destination it stands as today.

How to Get There

Visiting the Jonathan Netanyahu Memorial is very easy for guests of The Constitutional Walking Tour.  The memorial is located in front of Mikveh Israel, and it is less than one block away from the National Constitution Center where all of our tours begin and end. Simply walk half a block down 5th street towards Market Street and you will see Mikveh Israel on your left.  The Jonathan Netanyahu Memorial is located on a pedestrian pathway that runs between 5th and 4th streets, and it is directly in front of the main entrance to the Mikveh Israel synagogue.  
The many parking garages that serve the tourists who visit Independence National Historical Park are located a short distance from the memorial, making it easy to drive to and it is also served well by public transit as 5th Street Station is less than a block away.


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Additional Information

Independence Mall East
44 North 4th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106

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