As we mark thirteen years this week since the Columbia disaster, it is important to pause and pay tribute to Ilan Ramon (1954-2003) and what he stood for. If one person could sum up the wishes, achievements and values of the Jewish State, and illustrate just how far Israel has come, that individual is Israeli Air Force Colonel Ilan Ramon.
Ramon was born in the first decade of our States’ existence. His mother and grandmother were both survivors of Auschwitz and arrived in Israel to rebuild their shattered lives. His father fought in the War of Independence to allow his family to live in peace and security in the new Jewish State.
During his service in the Israeli air force, explaining why he wanted to volunteer for a mission, which he had helped plan, to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, he stated, ”If I can help prevent a second Holocaust, I am prepared to sacrifice my life for this.” Ramon, and his comrades, not only successfully completed this mission, but he also became the first Israeli in space. His mission was deeply symbolic, as were the many of the Zionist, Jewish and Holocaust related items he took with him into space, including a Torah scroll that had been in Bergen-Belsen.
When Ramon was flying over Israel he wrote, “with huge joy and honour,” a letter from space:
This morning we flew over /Israel. I clearly saw Jerusalem and during the time I looked at our capital I recited a small prayer: “Hear O Israel, we are working for the good of humanity. From space our whole world looks like one unit without borders. Therefor, I want to call from above, let us work together for peace and for a better life for everyone in the world.”
Ilan Ramon’s mission symbolised that Israel can go anywhere. He reminded us that, despite all the issues we are wrestling with, we have revived our language, made the desert bloom, rebuilt our homeland, ingathered our exiles, have the ability to defend our homeland and protect Jews worldwide as we continue to reach for the stars. In his final address in Hebrew to the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, from the Shuttle Columbia in space, he said:
I think we have a great people in Israel, and we have to maintain our Jewish heritage. I think it’s very important to preserve our historical and religious traditions.” He added that his mission symbolised, ”more than anything the ability of the Jewish people to survive anything, including horrible periods, and go from the darkest days to days of hope and faith in the future.
May his deeds and memory, and that of his son Assaf, who was killed in an Air Force training accident following in his fathers’ path, be for a blessing and an inspiration to us all!