PERSONIFYING OUR HIGHEST IDEALS
By Avi Davis
Someday, perhaps many decades from now, a teenager trekking through one of East Texas' national parks might find it. A charred, odd looking metal cup that, with the removal of its heavy coat of rust will reveal the remaining filigree of a Star of David. A farmer ploughing a wheat field, or building a barn near the Louisiana state line might stumble over the corroded remains of a metal vial, containing the scraps of Hebrew lettering. A school child, taking soil samples for a biology project could well discover pieces of the faded blue and white cloth that once passed as Israel's national flag. By that time, the fate of the seven men and women on the Columbia Space Shuttle will have faded from popular memory. By that time, the name of Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli to travel into space, might only register with either historians of early space travel or with Israelis who have named great-grandchildren or institutions after him. Few may be alive to recall the extraordinary lengths undertaken by this man to display pride in his country, joy in survival of his people and optimism for the future of mankind.
It is undeniable that as Ilan Ramon rocketed into space he understood that he traveled with more than one mission. Beyond his responsibilities as a crewman he also appreciated the significance of his flight for Israel and the Jewish people. As a Jew, he brought with him several symbols - a Torah scroll rescued from the ashes of the Holocaust; a Kiddush cup to serve for the Sabbath benediction and a mezuzah, the traditional container posted on the door lintels of Jewish homes. As the son and grandson of Holocaust survivors he brought with him a picture sketched by a 14 year old boy who dreamed of space travel but did not survive to see it happen. As an Israeli he orbited the planet with his country's national flag tucked into a bag and a handful of soil from his homeland. As he passed over Israel , he described to his country's prime minister how small but beautiful his homeland looked from space. And although a secular Jew, he celebrated the Jewish Sabbath from space, even reciting the 'Shma', the holiest benediction a Jew can recite, as the craft raced over Jerusalem.
No other Jewish astronaut had brought such public attention to his origins. None has ever gone to such lengths to demonstrate such national pride.
Yet it was as a member of humanity Ramon demonstrated his true greatness.
He was an exemplar in everything he did. First in his class in high school, first in his flight school class, first in his astronautical training class - he personified excellence. Humble, self effacing, a devoted father and husband he believed in human progress. Looking down upon earth he described its extraordinary beauty and wondered how it was possible that such beauty could be tarnished by so much conflict. Coming from the member a nation that has suffered so much unjustified persecution, that even to this day is the subject of such unexampled hatred, the question resounded as a longing for understanding, a plea for tolerance and respect for human dignity. Ramon's thoughts and actions and perhaps even his entire life have thereby provided a link between the Jewish people and the highest aspirations of mankind.
It should be needless to add that each member of the Columbia crew deserves to be remembered for the greatness of their individual sacrifices. They are proof that bravery, integrity and resourcefulness know neither racial distinction nor national boundary.
But the Jewish people cannot but feel that they have suffered a loss as devastating as anything endured over the past decade. As we remember this extraordinary man we might therefore recall the words of a Jewish king, written thousands of years ago:
"For a man knoweth not his time. As the fish that are taken in an evil net or birds in a snare even so are the sons of men ensnared in an evil time when it suddenly falls upon them . Therefore, whatsoever thy hand attaineth to do by thy strength - that do; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave."
Ilan Ramon would have understood. His last and greatest mission - the mission of hope - was completed under the shadow of death in his own land and in the face of grave risk in space. He may have perished but his strongest beliefs will not. For this we know: the evidence survives, awaiting future discovery, somewhere in the forested hills of East Texas.
Avi Davis is the senior fellow of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies.