MODIIN, ISRAEL — On January 16, the liftoff of the space shuttle Columbia was carried live on Israeli television stations, and then the tape of the historical event was played again and again during most of our all-too-frequent news broadcasts. The reason was, of course, that Israel’s first astronaut, Israeli air-force colonel Ilan Ramon, was on board.Ramon himself exuded tremendous national, local, and Jewish pride. He brought with him into space symbols of his state, his people, and his history, including a miniature Torah scroll, which, he said, “60 years ago a little boy in Bergen-Belsen [concentration camp] received from the rabbi of Amsterdam….” During a press conference from space just last week, Ramon related to a rapt Israel, “That boy, Yehoyachin Yosef, survived the Holocaust, arrived in Israel, fought in the country’s wars and then went on to become a distinguished professor of planetary physics.” The Torah scroll that survived the European inferno, the Israeli air-force colonel said, “symbolizes more than anything the ability of the Jewish people to survive everything, including horrible periods, and go from the darkest days to days of hope and faith in the future.”
On Saturday evening, February 1, Jerusalem time, virtually all of the Israeli media was primed for the planned triumphant touchdown of the space shuttle Columbia. As we all soon learned, to our collective horror, it was not to be. The news of the loss of communication with the Columbia cruelly interrupted an upbeat live interview with Ilan Ramon’s father, Eliezer Wolferman, on Israel’s Channel 2 television.
By Sunday, Israeli flags were at half-mast. In Israel, the story of the tragedy in the skies over Texas preoccupies the mind, the airwaves, the press, and dominates conversation. As it often does at moments like this, Israel becomes one big extended family. That aspect of the Israeli character was especially evident last night, when Ilan Ramon’s brother-in-law directly addressed one of the television newscasters, Yonit Levy, live on air, and, in a cracked voice, said, “Yonit, you know all the VIPs, please, call whoever you have to — the Prime Minister, the President — to get my wife and kids to Rona [Ramon]….” Within minutes, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, along with the national carrier El Al, had arranged a special flight to take the family
members still in Israel to Florida.
Ilan Ramon is more than a local Israeli hero, however. If justice is to be done to his legacy, he should be memorialized by all peoples of the free world, but especially by the men and women of the United States Armed Forces. For were it not for Ilan Ramon, and other still-anonymous fighter pilots, the U.S. military would today be facing an Iraq armed with nuclear weapons.
In 1981, Col. Ilan Ramon was one of the eight Israeli pilots who bombed and destroyed the French-built Iraqi nuclear reactor, at Osirak. It was a shocking blow, as brave as it was audacious, and it set back Iraqi plans to acquire nuclear-missile capability by decades. While it provoked the wrath of the world at the time — with the U.S. State Department even condemning the strike as endangering peace in the region — ten years later, the Israeli incursion into Iraqi airspace was a bit better appreciated. Dick Cheney, U.S. secretary of defense during the first Gulf War, wrote to David Ivry, the commander of Israel’s air force at the time of the Osirak mission, “For Gen. David Ivry, with thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job he did on the Iraqi nuclear program in 1981 — which made our job much easier in Desert Storm.”
In the wake of the Columbia tragedy, highlighting the U.S.-Israel relationship has been the theme in both official and unofficial circles. During a Sunday morning cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reiterated what he told U.S. president George W. Bush the evening before: “I wish to send from here, on behalf of the government and people of Israel, our sincere condolences to the families of the American astronauts, to the president of the United States, George Bush, and to the people of the United States. Times such as these strengthen the bonds of our common fate, values, and vision, all of which were realized in colonel Ilan Ramon’s journey into space.” An Israel Defense Forces statement said, in part, “The inclusion of an Israeli astronaut in this mission was made possible due to the special relations between Israel and the United States.” Those special relations, no doubt, were what motivated the students and faculty at the Beersheba high school that Ramon attended in his youth to display an Israeli and an American flag side-by-side at a makeshift memorial.
As Prime Minister Sharon put it, “Their deaths were not in vain. Man’s journey into space will continue. Cooperation between the United States and Israel in this field will also continue.” Air-force commander major-general Dan Halutz seconded the prime minister’s resolve, saying that, in the future, another Israeli astronaut will be in space.
In the meanwhile, as the investigation into the shuttle disaster continues, residents of Palestine — Texas, that is — should be on the lookout for a small Torah scroll among the wreckage of the Columbia. We all could use a reminder of the indestructibility of the human spirit right about now.