A New and Different Kind of Tragedy for Israel

Mourning the loss of Colonel Ilan Ramon.

JERUSALEM (RNS) -- From the first minutes of the space shuttle's launch onJan. 16, Israelis had followed Columbia's mission to the moon with the kindof national pride and awestruck fascination that was reminiscent of earlierchapters of American space exploration.

After all, Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, the son of a Holocaustsurvivor and a crack Air Force pilot, was aboard this shuttle flight. He wasthe nation's John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, carrying a Hebrew Bible with himinto space.

On Saturday, when the shuttle broke up into pieces just 16 minutesbefore its scheduled landing, the sense of national pride turned to despair,and awe to mourning. Political commentators and young school children gropedawkwardly for meaning in what is, for war-hardened Israelis, a new anddifferent kind of national tragedy.

"With a defiant patriotism and a boy-scout naivete, our guy took withhim into space a small Torah scroll that survived the Holocaust and adrawing of earth made by a small boy murdered in Auschwitz," wrote politicalcommentator Arye Shavit, in the Israeli daily, Ha'aretz.

"For 16 days we had one of our guys in space. And this country, soaccustomed to cynicism, looked up to its man in space. This country, so usedto looking down on itself, held its breath at the prospect of a differentreality, that of a country that can defy the gravity of its fate."

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In the wake of the tragedy, much was said about how Ramon died at hisbest moment. He was eulogized both as the son of a Holocaust survivor whohad asserted his Jewish identity even in the space shuttle, requestingKosher food even though he wasn't religiously observant. And Ramon was alsoremembered as the unsung military hero who had played a strategic role inIsrael's 1981 bombing of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor.

"He was both a proud representative of Judaism and of the land ofIsrael," said Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau.

But for the majority of Israelis, who are ardently secular, nobledeclarations by religious figures could not quite touch the deeper chord ofloss. Conventional religious ritual could barely express the mystical senseof irony that was somehow entwined with the story of Ramon's space flight.

"There was no way to translate the depth of the shock and grief inIsrael, a country where shock and grief, and the obscene ironies of tragedy,are such second nature that they are built into daily speech," saidIsraeli-American Bradley Burston, also writing in Ha'aretz.

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Elaine Ruth Fletcher
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