It was a daring rescue in hostile territory, where even the smallest mistake could have doomed more than 100 lives. Yet this remarkable military operation succeeded, and 40 years ago, on July 4, 1976, Operation Entebbe became the stuff of legends, with multiple movies and books recounting this dramatic military mission.
What is overlooked is that Operation Entebbe is much more than a heroic military rescue. Former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi said that Entebbe was not the most difficult or dangerous operation he was a part of during his military career. So what made the Entebbe raid special? To Ashkenazi, it was the look on the faces of hostages.
As the Israeli commandos burst into the terminal, the hostages initially reacted with fear, thinking the commandos were Ugandan soldiers coming to execute them. A few seconds later, as the hostages saw the Israeli insignia on the commandos’ uniforms, the look on the hostages faces suddenly changed to pure relief. They knew their brothers had come to the rescue. Ashkenazi says that’s when he learned what it means to be an Israeli and a Jew. At that moment he understood most profoundly that he was part of a people who take care of each other no matter what. To be a Jew, you need to be loyal to your people.
Loyalty is a difficult virtue to understand. Ethical obligations are generally understood as categorical and universal. Ethics teaches that you cannot murder all people, and you must be respectful of all people. But loyalty is different, because it means we give special treatment to those closest to us. So why do we consider it a virtue to act with loyalty towards our family and friends?
Loyalty may be a troublesome concept for philosophers, but it has never been a question for Jews. To be a Jew means to be loyal to a community and to a tradition. We understand that we have to go above and beyond for those close to us, because this is critical in creating families and communities. Without loyalty, the Jewish community would have crumbled a long time ago.
The biblical character who is the paradigm of loyalty is Ruth. Despite being encouraged to return to a comfortable life in Moab, she insists on going with her mother-in-law Naomi, and says: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God… nothing but death will separate you from me.” This is the most eloquent statement of loyalty ever spoken, as Ruth declares that her dedication to Naomi and her people has no bounds.
What happened at Entebbe 40 years ago is an exceptional example of Jewish loyalty. Yiftach Atir, one of the soldiers on the mission, told me that in the days of preparation before the raid, the commanding officers sat everyone down and explained how risky the operation would be. They asked the soldiers if they wanted to go. Immediately, every soldier raised his hand. Like Ruth, they were saying, “Where you go I will go.”
The lessons of loyalty are not just for the IDF. They’re for all of us. I thought about this recently when our son, Eitan, made plans to enlist in the IDF. Our friends have asked us whether we would try to stop him. Well, we certainly hadn’t planned on him going to the IDF. And my wife and I are both quite nervous about him enlisting, but so is every Israeli parent. But there is no escaping that loyalty to Israel demanded us to answer yes.
So with a mix of nervousness and pride, we gave Eitan our blessing. After all, Ruth taught us that to be a Jew is to say, “Where you go I will go.” The IDF follows Ruth’s path. How could we do any less?