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.
The Cohen, Borochovitch, and Bloch families had been together in Entebbe so they knew how their loved ones died during the raid: by stray Israeli bullets, and in the case of Dora Bloch, murdered in the hospital. Still, none had ever spoken publicly about the events. And every 10 years, these families, along with all the other hostages and their loved ones, were invited to a national ceremony to celebrate the victory at Entebbe. “This was Israel’s most glorious moment,” Boers said. “The celebrations are filmed on TV. And with almost unbelievable insensitivity, the families of the dead have been invited, too, as if they would join the celebration and forget their losses.”
So, perhaps the most important aspect of To Live and Die in Entebbe is that Boers was able to get some family members of these forgotten victims to articulate their experiences and their loss. The Borochovitch family left Israel several years after the raid, and Boers was unable to track them down for the time. But one of Mimouni’s five sisters agreed to participate in the film. And together with Khayat, Boers interviews other hostages, including members of Pasco Cohen’s family.
Though they were reluctant at first, the Cohen family agreed to meet with Mimouni’s mother, now very elderly, and tell her what they remembered. In Entebbe, the hostages referred to Mimouni as “the kid,” Cohen’s widow, now a middle-aged woman, recalls in the film. She says that Mimouni provoked the terrorists by arguing with them and at least once was severely beaten with a rifle butt. She remembers that he tried to help people, handing out water and offering support and a kind word whenever he could.
Mimouni held French citizenship, and when the terrorists separated the Israelis from everyone else on the first day of the kidnapping, he could have saved himself. But he insisted on staying with the Israelis. “I named the movie, ‘To Live and Die in Entebbe,’” Boers explained, “because Mimouni seems to have discovered his identity—his life as a Jew and an Israeli—in Entebbe. For him, that week was a time of belonging.”
According to the documentary, he was apparently killed because he did not stay down when the Israeli commandos rushed the terminal. The commandos had orders to shoot anyone standing, to protect themselves and the hostages. In the film, Amir Ofer, one of the first Israeli soldiers to burst into the terminal, and the only one interviewed on camera, says, “I would’ve shot him, too.”
In his meeting with Mimouni’s mother and Khayat, Kobi Cohen, a child when he was hijacked and his father was killed, says that he has made peace with the events. “My family suffered, but the mission was right. Otherwise, more people would have died.” Khayat nods in agreement—but cannot accept that Mimouni’s family was never told the truth by the Israeli government or the army. “Robert Mimouni was strong,” Boers told me. “If the state had only acknowledged the truth, he would have understood. But Israel never gave him an answer and never gave him legitimacy to mourn. He died a broken man.”
From a historical perspective, Boers observed, Israel desperately needed a heroic myth. “We needed Entebbe to overcome the trauma of the Yom Kippur War. And there was no place for stories about friendly fire or collateral damage,” he said. “And it was easier in those days for officials to lie—or at least not to give full information to the public. Media and information were slower, and the public trusted its officials.”
Boers did extensive research for the film, which is full of fascinating details, including information about the role of the Kenyan government in enabling the Israeli planes to refuel. Most moving is his interview with Amos Eran, then-director-general of the offices of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin, Eran reveals, had deep doubts about the mission. Expecting severe losses, Rabin had set a calculus of collateral deaths: If more than 25 of the hostages died, he would resign. Fewer than 25 would be considered a success. “When only three were killed in the raid, it was cause for national ecstasy,” Boers said.
Boers compared the Entebbe story as Israelis tell it to themselves to the stories that the Dutch tell themselves about Anne Frank, the topic of his previous film. “The Dutch focus on the fact that they hid Anne Frank, that they protected her. They don’t talk about the Dutchman who turned her in. And they don’t talk about how they allowed 75 percent of the Dutch Jewish population to die in the Holocaust.”
Yet Boers denies that he set out to be a myth-buster. “I was born in Jerusalem and my family moved away. I spent my teen years in Australia. I did not have to return to Israel to serve in the IDF—but I did, in part because I, too, was inspired by the story of Yonatan Netanyahu,” he said.
“Entebbe was a glorious mission. But it would not have been any less glorious if the family of Jean-Jacques Mimouni had been told the truth, or if we remember the dead along with the heroes. I hope that now Israel is mature enough to temper the myth with honesty.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
On his first trip abroad, the new secretary of state criticized Erdogan’s comments about Israel. It’s about time.