Entebbe’s Forgotten Dead
A new documentary asks why Israel has overlooked the other Jews who died alongside Yoni Netanyahu
Mention the name Entebbe to any Israeli and they will tell you the story of Yonatan (Yoni) Netanyahu, the heroic paratrooper and older brother of the current prime minister who died commanding the daring raid to free the 105 Israeli hostages hijacked to Entebbe, Uganda, in July of 1976. Popular myth has always held that save one Israeli woman, 74-year-old Dora Bloch, who was murdered in a hospital by Idi Amin’s troops—every single other Israeli was spared thanks to the sacrifice of 30-year-old Netanyahu and the expertise of his elite Sayeret Matkel commando forces.
Within a year of the operation, two high-budget films and a made-for-TV movie were produced that featured stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Charles Bronson, Anthony Hopkins, Peter Finch, and, in one, a dashing Richard Dreyfuss as Yoni Netanyahu. The promos for the films focus on the heroism of the soldiers, particularly Netanyahu.
But for more than 35 years, three Israeli families have remembered the events of Entebbe not as a shining moment of national unity, but as a personal tragedy. That’s because their family members—Jean-Jacques Mimouni, Pasco Cohen, Ida Borochovitch—also died in Entebbe.
In newly released documentary,To Live and Die in Entebbe, filmmaker Eyal Boers tells the story of Entebbe’s other victims and tries to explain why they have been forgotten by history. He focuses especially on what happened to 19-year-old Mimouni during the seven days of the hijacking, how he died in the raid, and why his family was never told the truth about his death.
“The Entebbe myth is a perfect one, made up of smarts, daring, self-sacrifice, dedication to the value of life, and loyalty,” Boers, 37, told me as he sipped tea in a popular Tel Aviv coffee shop late last month. “This mission wasn’t about revenge or aggression. It was pure and it represented the best national qualities that we can be proud of.”
But this mix of legitimate pride, horror, and desire for a glorious national narrative left no room for those whose death was less than glorious. “All nations,” as Boers noted, “need myths. And often, when they tell their myths, they leave out the parts that are uncomfortable or sad.”
Boers, who previously directed the documentary Classmates of Anne Frank, came upon the story of Entebbe by chance. He and Yonatan Khayat, a French-Tunisian-Israeli now living in Montreal, had been friends since their college days in Tel Aviv. Khayat once mentioned that his uncle, Jean-Jacques Mimouni, had died in Entebbe. “I was surprised, because I didn’t know that anyone besides Netanyahu had died there. And then he told me that the family never found out how he died,” Boers recalled. Together, beginning four years ago, Khayat and Boers set out to find the answers to the questions that have haunted Khayat and his family for decades.
The Mimouni family had come to Israel from Paris only four years before the Entebbe hijacking. Jean-Jacques’s father, Robert, was a staunch Zionist who had served in the French resistance during World War II and then in the French police force. One of Mimouni’s older sisters—Khayat’s mother—remained in Paris when the family immigrated. Mimouni was on the Air France flight to Paris in order to see his nephew, Yonatan Khayat, then only two months old, for the first time.
At 9 a.m. on June 27, 1976, along with 227 other passengers, Jean-Jaques Mimouni boarded Air France flight 139 from Ben Gurion Airport to Charles DeGaulle, with a stopover in Greece. After take-off from Athens, the plane was hijacked by four Palestinian and German terrorists. After landing in Benghazi to refuel, they then flew on to the warm welcome of Ugandan despot Idi Amin in Entebbe. Soon afterward, the hijackers freed the French crew and non-Jewish passengers, while retaining 105 Jewish and Israeli hostages.
Back home in Israel, the families of the hostages were unable to sleep. But in the early hours of July 4, Mimouni’s father, Robert, woke the family: He heard about the operation over the radio, and they rushed to Ben Gurion airport to meet the victorious returning planes.
At that very moment, a military jeep was on its way to the Mimouni home, apparently to inform the family about what had happened to their son. Arriving at the airport, surrounded by joyful pandemonium, the Mimouni family was taken aside by military officials. They were told that their son had died of an asthma attack. Robert Mimouni insisted on seeing his son’s body, which was being held in a room at the airport. The body was punctured with bullet holes, but no one ever offered them an explanation. Mimouni demanded to know the truth, but the family was quickly whisked away by government officials.
Over the years, Robert Mimouni tried to piece together the story, unsuccessfully trying to reach soldiers or witnesses. Family members recall that he even tried to make sketches of what might have happened, based on his own knowledge as a resistance fighter and policeman. But the government and the army stonewalled him, according to Boers, and he passed away in 2011.
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