A New and Different Kind of Tragedy for Israel

Mourning the loss of Colonel Ilan Ramon.

BY: Elaine Ruth Fletcher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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