For most Americans, the Fourth of July evokes memories of late night fireworks displays, pageants and parades, and orotund oratory celebrating American uniqueness.
But for me the day will always conjure up my first Fourth of July in Israel. For Americans, it was the bicentennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence; for Israelis, it was the day of the Entebbe miracle.
The only parallel I can recall to the sustained tension in the days following the hijacking of the Air France airliner to Uganda was that experienced in the weeks leading up to the Six Day War. During those weeks, a television was introduced for the first and last time to the sanctum of the Rosenblum family dining room, so as not to miss a word of Abba Eban's glorious speeches at the UN.
As Yitzhak Rabin said, 'the sand in the hour-glass was about to run out.'
Even then, however, there had of necessity been something vicarious about my teenage identification with events in Israel. Now I was actually in Israel sharing the emotions, it seemed, of every person in the country. Over 100 Israeli hostages were being held at Entebbe airport, and as Yitzhak Rabin said, "the sand in the hour-glass was about to run out."
A younger brother was then a student at Aish HaTorah in the Old City, and he and his fellow students beat a continuous path to the ongoing prayer vigils at the Western Wall.
In the Hebrew ulpan in which I was then studying, the incentive to learn Hebrew had never seemed so great. We too yearned to listen to the news updates every half-hour. Our teachers regaled us with stories of Idi Amin's behavior during his time in Israel, but we all knew that there was nothing funny about what he or the Palestinian and German hijackers might do.
Awakening on July 4th, my first thoughts were of meeting my brothers later in the day for the bicentennial celebrations at Bloomfield Stadium. As soon as I boarded the bus that morning, however, the bicentennial was quickly forgotten.
The air on the bus was electric. The radio was blaring, and everyone was simultaneously listening to the broadcast and talking to everybody else. My Hebrew was not yet to the point of understanding the radio, and it took a moment or two before I realized that the impossible had occurred: The IDF had somehow rescued the captives from an airfield guarded by hostile forces thousands of miles away. Even those of us raised on Mission Impossible had never contemplated an attempted rescue.
Complete strangers were embracing on the bus. For once Jewish unity seemed like a reality, not a fundraiser's slogan. As I looked around the bus, one thought kept recurring: We are all Jews. The obvious differences between us -- language, skin color, personal and familial history -- suddenly seemed unimportant.
How different, I thought, from my feelings on the New York City subway. On the subway, I never once said to myself: We are all Americans; we have something in common. Instead I was guiltily aware of all that divided me from most of my fellow passengers. I was whiter, better educated, richer.
What was my connection to every other Jew around me?
Amidst the warm buzz on the Egged bus winding its way down the hill from East Talpiot, I began to wonder about the mysterious power of my Jewishness. What, in fact, was the nature of my connection to the strangers around me? I doubt the answer leapt into my head on the bus ride itself. But as I wrestled with the puzzle, it dawned on me that we really did share something in common.
We were each the product of an unbroken chain of ancestors, every one of whom had chosen their Judaism over every blandishment that the surrounding society could hold out to them, and despite every torture and affliction with which they and their children were constantly threatened. I began to wonder about the power that made it possible for Jews, both great scholars and humble folk, over thousands of years, and in almost every place around the globe, to consistently make that choice. What belief gave them that strength?
Entebbe became for me one of those crucial moments of awakening as a Jew.
Jubilation was, of course, the dominant mood that July 4th. But even as the rams' horns sounded at the Kotel, there was the realization that four of the captives had been killed in the rescue and a fifth left behind at the mercy of Idi Amin. And most important, for me, was the loss of Yonatan Netanyahu.
Whether it was our common first name, our closeness in age, or the fact that we had been educated in the same Ivy League schools, I couldn't stop thinking about him. His life -- not just his death -- struck me as a rebuke to my own.
I wrote home complaining of the lack of opportunities in America "to do anything heroic or big." But even as I complained of America, I knew the real problem was myself and my tendency to "think of life as something that is going to start in the future and for which the present is only preparation." Until then, I had merely accumulated entries on a resume in anticipation of that as yet-unidentified achievement that would somehow justify the pursuit of those resume items.
When will Jews again experience the feelings of unity as we did that morning?
Yonatan Netanyahu had lived his life differently -- in the present, not the future. He had left the safety of Harvard Yard to join the IDF. With a future of seemingly unlimited potential, he had consistently volunteered for the most dangerous missions. I questioned then, and still do, whether I would ever do anything to give meaning to my life in the way that Yonatan Netanyahu did that night in 1976.
While the first realization of the miracle of the Entebbe rescue will always rank as one of the happiest moments of my life, the memory today is a bittersweet one. For it always calls in its wake the question: When will we Jews in the Land of Israel again experience the feelings of unity we did that morning?