Yom Ha’atzmaut means the Day of Independence, and that is something to be celebrated. Independence meant the Jewish people were masters of their own fate. That is a tremendous responsibility, but also a tremendous privilege. Our survival depends on this independence, and it has become a part of our national character. We are taught to be independent thinkers and to take initiative in tough situations.
Every year, I learn more about Israeli history and the incredible stories of our heroes. This story of independence of mind seemed especially pertinent given the momentous occasion.
In October of 1973, Amir Nachumi was a pilot who was on quick reaction duty at the Ofir Air Force base, which was at the southern tip of the Sinai. When the war was declared, Nachumi correctly deduced that the Egyptian Air Force had taken a lesson from Israel’s overwhelming victory in the Six-Day War and would be going for Air Supremacy. The Air Force base would be under attack at any moment, to bomb the runways. His deductions proved correct and radar detected Egyptian planes flying toward them. 28 MiG-17s and their MiG-21 escorts were coming in fast.
It is in this moment Nachumi made a fateful choice. He had no orders to scramble the jets, but he decided to take the initiative and order a scramble. In his own words,
I decided to take off – the controller was screaming that there were orders not to take off. However, I decided that the orders were 400 kilometers away and they didn’t know what was going on. I cranked the engine and told my number two to do the same and to scramble as quickly as possible. Standby is very close to the runway so we cranked the engines, went to the runway, and took off. I looked back to see that number two was airborne and that everything was ok, and I saw smoke plumes on the runway, like cotton balls. And I didn’t understand. I told my navigator, “Look! What do you make of this?” He said, “They are bombing the runway, this must be war!” (Nordeen, Lon (1990). Fighters Over Israel. New York: Orion Books. ISBN 0-517-56603-6.)
Without that order, the air base would have been lost and the planes would have been grounded due to the loss of runways. Despite having a failed engine, Nahumi and his navigator Yossi Yavin, as well as the other plane flown by Daniel Shaki and David Regev was able to achieve a legendary victory. Nahumi’s team downed six planes, while the Shaki-Regev team downed three more, chasing away all the remaining planes before landing on the damaged runways.
It is Nachumi’s attitude that truly exemplifies what it means to be Israeli, what I try to pass on to my own students.
- Independent Thinking: Nachumi was able to think outside the box, and in this case, think like the enemy. He studied his opponents and was able to outmatch them, by predicting their moves. That requires wisdom.
- Independence in Actions: Nachumi went against orders, and took on impossible odds. That level of courage speaks for itself.
- Independent Leadership: Nachumi didn’t become a robot, just obeying orders blindly. He recognized that this wasn’t a threat, but an attack. Therefore, he had very little time to examine the situation and had to make tough choices.
- Independently Ready: Nachumi was cultivated for leadership and was well-trained in his ability to fly. Those few moments where he was a hero were built on all of his own actions, his learning, and his personal development. He spent thousands of hours studying his craft and working on gaining the trust of others. When the time for action came, he was ready.
That is the spirit of Israel. The independent spirit that is at our best when we are at our worst, the spirit of an underdog that has more fight than a lion. It is the ability of a young pilot who was outnumbered 14 to 1 in terms of planes and like Gandalf to the Balrog said, you shall not pass.
Long live Israeli Independence. For longer than 75 years, you have produced incredible heroes and visionaries. You have lived up to your duty to be a light among nations and I believe your best days lie before you.