Analysis: Why this is a national tragedy

By David Harris, September 18, 2009
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Israelis are a pretty divided lot. Ashkenazim fight with Sephardim, the Orthodox squabble with the secular, Arabs bicker with Jews and so it goes on. Little seems to unite this hot-blooded nation.

Yet when it was reported on Sunday that Asaf Ramon was killed in a jet fighter accident, arguments were set aside and people entered a period of collective mourning.

In the evening, as families sat down to watch the news, there was a feeling of déjà vu.

The Ramon family was at the centre of world attention when Ilan became Israel’s first astronaut, and then died as the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated on re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere in 2003.

Now once again, this loved family of a national hero was plunged into the spotlight as it was confirmed that the dead pilot in Sunday’s crash was none other than Ilan’s son, Asaf.

TV schedules were changed as the news shows were extended and Ramon family specials were aired. On Monday the newspapers were crammed with Ramon stories, while family friends and former Israel Air Force generals were paraded across the airwaves.

Meanwhile, the Israel Defence Force Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi led the mourners visiting the Ramon home. The funeral was attended by President Shimon Peres and PM Binyamin Netanyahu.

Was this all too over the top? It is clear that if any other pilot had been killed in Sunday’s tragic accident, the national interest would have been far more subdued.

Nevertheless, one can understand why the Ramons’ double tragedy has such resonance.

Israel is a country of just seven million souls. The nation has no great athletes, movie stars or other such celebrities.

There are few opportunities for Israelis to discuss “sensational” stories that are close to home.

At the same time, the one thing most Jewish Israelis do idolise is the armed services — and pilots in particular. In Israeli mythology, hatovim latayis — the best go to the air force. Israelis were inordinately proud of Ilan Ramon; he and his son were seen, in a sense, as the “ideal Israelis”.

In addition, in a country this size, everyone knows everyone. When Ilan Ramon was introduced as Israel’s first astronaut, so many Israelis claimed to have some form of familial or army link to the man that it appeared as though the whole country knew him.

This week’s outpouring of sympathy for the Ramon family is part and parcel of that syndrome.

Israel is a small village and when tragedy strikes or, indeed, when there is great joy to be had, everyone wants a piece. That is why Asaf Ramon’s tragic end is a national catastrophe.

David Harris is the CEO of The Green Door Project (thegreendoorproject.com)

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010