Benyamin Netanyahu was always serious as a young man, intense, and a strong debater. Young men like that are usually loners and can’t find other boys their age with compatible qualities or interests.
In a recent article in Ynet, it was revealed that Netanyahu, who missed his high-school graduation to enlist in the IDF for the ’67 war, had such a friend, but he was tragically killed in the Yom Kippur War, three months after Yoni Netanyahu was killed at Entebbe.
A fascinating glimpse into the psyche of the emerging leader is given by a pack of letters written by his friend, Ariel Barzilay. Netanyahu returned the letters to Barzilay’s mother three years after his death, in 1976, after he found them while searching for letters from his brother, Yoni. He attached a letter to the gift.
“Dear Tova,” Netanyahu wrote. “While searching for Yoni’s letters, I found this letter from Ariel. Clearly now, more than ever, the value of these traces is clear to me – because apart from memories and letters, there is so little left that can be passed on to other, so that they will also know. And it’s important for Roee to get to know Ariel and draw power and inspiration from him, just like it’s important for me that my children will get to know, really know, my brother Yoni. All the best, Bibi.”
The pack of letters sat in her attic for decades, passing to her daughter, Anat Keinan, when she passed away.
Anat explained why she had not revealed the letters earlier.
“It was difficult for us to deal with it. My mother and I would open a box, read a letter and shed a tear. That’s why we also couldn’t deal with commemoration evenings and events. When you see the pictures, you understand what a special group they were. Bibi and Beller and Ariel were attached to each other in the summer. When we marked 30 years since Ariel was killed, Bibi was supposed to come and in the end it was too complicated security-wise, so he called me and we spoke about Ariel a bit.”
“Throughout the years, I said that I don’t want to close this circle. Something in me said that I want to leave this channel open all the time. After the 30th anniversary event in Ariel’s memory, I was all shaken up. I was in a terrible storm of emotions after that evening. I am a teacher and I remember walking to school so I could cry. It was very difficult.”
This year, as part of the Israel Museum’s 50th anniversary celebrations, Anat found a picture of Ariel and his friends from 1965 in one of the museum’s exhibitions. It led her to open up about the pictures.
An old, black-and-white photo shows a group of friends, including Uzi Beller, now know as Professor Beller, who introduced Netanyahu to his friend, Barzilay.
“Bibi was a friend of mine from elementary school,” says Beller. “He and his family moved to the US, and in the summers he would live in my house and I would take him to the Scouts camp to hang out with the guys. That’s how he met his first wife, and that’s how Ariel got to know him too.”
“Ariel was a very positive person. He had charisma which couldn’t be ignored. It’s true that we were all successful, but there was something very charismatic, serious and responsible about Ariel.”
The group went on to high-school together, but Benyamin Netanyahu moved to Pennsylvania with his family. He stayed in touch, though, through writing letters.
In February 1967, Barzilay wrote to Netanyahu:
“Memories… memories… remember… a lot to remember. We remember everything. It’s a bit strange and unpleasant to think that this is the last summer we could fool around and make a mess like animals and see ourselves as small children who are allowed to do anything. It’s a bit strange and unpleasant to know that at the end of this year we’ll be entering a harsh and fatal discipline of an army, efforts of a body we are not exactly familiar with. We won’t be allowed to do strange things, because they don’t befit a grownup person. We will have to be like everyone, with long trousers, polished shoes. No, no, it’s just unpleasant.
“To the last word, this was written yesterday, on Friday evening, until my girlfriend arrived and we went to a party. Today it’s Saturday morning. I am starting to study for an exam in analytical engineering. There was a party at Fefferman’s. It was great. I will conclude here. It’s raining outside, it’s February, I must go study. So long, Ariel.”
On September 20, 1965, Netanyahu wrote a letter to Ariel from the US:
“Hello Barzil! Listen, I returned from school pretty desperate, pondered and idled away for half an hour and then decided it was time to do my homework. I went to my father’s room to get a new pen and found instead of it on the table – a letter from you! In a flash my mood changed and I began screaming ‘hello’ excitedly, kicking the furniture, scratching the walls… Don’t think I’m exaggerating. I haven’t been this satisfied in a long time, and I mean it. In short, I immediately sat down to answer you.
“The truth is that the situation here, although it is depressing, isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Last week I had pretty serious nightmares, but very quickly, when school began, I no longer have time for these things (tough, my friend). I am starting to see the wheels turn and time passing by. In my leisure time I miss and remember the exact things you mentioned. You are right: It really was my most successful summer. Let’s hope the next one will be even better (by the way, I don’t want you to escape to Rehovot during the vacation, because I want to spend quite a lot of time with you. Even two months. Is that clear?)
“You tell me – I understand from all kinds of sources that you really being tormented in the scientific classes. Miki wrote to me that you have dangerous mind bullies, while you and Buz (Beller) are praising some Romanian-speaking grown creature. If he causes any trouble, we’ll take care of him together during the summer (we can also add Piker to project).”
In a letter dated April 2, 1967, Barzilay asks Netanyahu about his future plans in Israel:
“As for your university, I see that you’re an organized fellow and that you are taking care of your future. If so, I dare ask you what are your plans for the longer term. Do you have plans to stay in the US or just an intermediate station again? You know, I am not attracted by overseas at all. I think that since my future lies in this country, it’s clear that everything it can provide me with is more than enough, and I ask you not to take this lightly, because the level in Israel is not low in any way! (Especially in high school!) By the way, do you know that Israel is first in mathematical studies in the world? And that’s based on tests taken by delegations from several dozen countries, including the US. I should note that the eastern countries were not included, and they are a considerable mathematical force. Well, I’ve had enough of talking about studies. In general, there is almost no news.”
In the next letter, sent a month and a half later, on May 16, Barzilay tries to emphasize what he said:
“I’m rushing to answer for two reasons: A) you asked me to; and B) you somewhat angered me, so I am rushing to fill in the void that has been created. An American or British band called The Animals sang a song called, ‘Please, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.’
“All that is left for me is to sing it out loud. It’s true that your intellectual way resides permanently in the way I think. I never doubted the fact that in order to create an opinion you must gather information about the sides and opinions, and after becoming proficient, make a ruling!… There is a certain difference between expressing an opinion and an impression. My impression in my current situation is that I am not attracted by overseas. It’s a simple story about my world of senses and not necessarily slander against anything beyond the border. I had no patriotic intention in that, and if you think it’s easy to sit in an armchair in Jerusalem and be a patriot, I hereby inform you that this is the situation, it’s difficult! Because emigration is in fashion, there are voices in favor of it. While they don’t exceed the more patriotic ones, they are heard and are not unusual (and I am convinced that you are personally familiar with the emigration problem). I am ending the problem here, and if you tried to raise an intellectual problem you encountered in my letter, I hope I have convinced you that you failed to understand the data of the problem, and it’s very simple!
“From patriotism to patriotism, we’re still on the same issue: Today is Independence Day!! The guys and I had a campfire picnic with 35 people, with kebab, hummus, pita bread, and cold, warm and alcoholic drinks. They sang and it was very joyful. By the way, the kebab was made by us and it’s something to be proud of. We prepared it on a charcoal barbecue, on embers. Very romantic. In school it’s starting to get busy and let’s hope it will be okay. In a month and a half it will all be behind us. So long. Yours, Ariel.”
Bibi was a very mature student, but he was completely ‘Americano,'” says Professor Beller. “Before Yoni was killed, he made plans to stay there at major stages. Many people suggested that he stay in American. Good Israelis who move to America and receive offers is not a rare thing. I also lived there and came back. So at the time Bibi had quite a few temptations to stay there.
“He graduated from business administration school. After completing his studies, he worked in a very large business consulting company, the Boston Consulting Group, and changed his last name to Nitay (the name his father sometimes used to sign his articles). It’s no secret that he planned to stay there, but then Yoni was killed and everything changed and he decided to come back.”