As we mark 20 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 achievements and values of the Jewish State, and illustrate just how far Israel has come, that individual is Ilan Ramon.
Ramon was born in the first decade of the 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. Colonel Ramon, during his service in the Israeli air force, when asked if he would take part in a mission to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 responded:
If I can help prevent a second Holocaust, I am prepared to sacrifice my life for this.
Ramon not only successfully completed this mission, but also became the first Israeli in space. His mission was deeply symbolic, as were many of the items he took with him into space, including a Torah Scroll that had been in Bergen-Belsen and a copy of a pencil sketch, Moon Landscape, drawn by 16-year-old Petr Ginz, who was murdered in Auschwitz. Ilan Ramon’s mission symbolized that Israel can go anywhere. He reminded us that we have revived our language, made the desert bloom, rebuilt our homeland, ingathered our exiles. That we have the ability to defend our homeland and protect Jews worldwide and we continue to reach for the stars. 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.
“I think we have a great people in Israel, and we have to maintain our Jewish heritage,” he said in an address from the shuttle Columbia in space. “I think it’s very important to preserve our historical and religious traditions.” On carrying the Torah into space, he said:
This scroll symbolizes, 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 memory and that of his son Assaf, who was killed in an Air Force training accident, be for a blessing and an inspirational example to us all! A fitting eulogy for such a selfless hero can be found in the words of another hero of the Jewish people, Chana Szenesh:
There are stars whose radiance is visible on earth though they have long been extinct.
There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world though they are no longer among the living.
These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark.
They light the way for mankind.
This article contains extracts from my book, “For the Sake of Zion.” (Koren: 2017).