Amid intifada, loss of Col. Ilan Ramon a new blow for Israel

TEL AVIV — Col. Ilan Ramon, killed Saturday when the Columbia shuttle and its crew disintegrated upon re-entry into the atmosphere, was Israel's very own "right stuff."

He was Alan Shepard, John Glenn and Yitzhak Rabin rolled into one. He was, as Israelis noted Sunday in nationwide classroom memorials and at the Prime Minister's Office, "the best of the best" — professional, brash, modest and, yes, even handsome.

Sunday was widely, though not officially, considered a day of mourning here in Israel. Flags across the country flew at half-staff. Under the directive of Minister of Education Limor Livnat, every classroom in the country became a mini-memorial to Israel's lost astronaut. Instructors lectured about Ramon's life, and students were encouraged to express how they felt.

Even the weather seemed to reflect the national mood — a thick, mustard-colored fog blanketed Israel in the early afternoon.

The front pages of Israel's dailies depicted Ramon, looking straight at the camera, his hand raised in a salute — or was it a farewell? — with a backdrop of flaming sections of the Columbia shuttle streaking across the blue Texas sky.

"Crying over Ilan," read the 2-1/2-inch headline of the mass- circulation daily Yediot Ahronot. "Shards of the dream," read the headline of the other mass daily, Ma'ariv, showing tiny pieces of the shuttle streaming down to Earth.

Everywhere in Israel, children, parents and the aged shook their heads as if struck by an irony too bitter to comprehend. "Even for the world champions in watching disasters unfold on television, this event was not quite like anything we know," said one Ma'ariv commentator.

This time, there was no blood, there were no Arabs screaming "Allahu Akbar," there were no tanks, no chants of "death to the Arabs" in the aftermath, no enemies and no saviors. It was by all standards a sterile disaster, and it registered in Israel as numbing shock.

Even for Israelis hardened by years of dealing with terrorism, the death of Ramon was a difficult blow.

It hit even closer to home than other disasters, said Naomi Baum a psychologist at the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma. "We identified with Ramon and his family because we learned so much about them in the past four years, and especially in the past two weeks. It hurt so much because we developed an intimacy with him and his family."

By Monday Israelis, as noted by the media, moved from shock to early stages of mourning.

Nevertheless the bitter ironies nipped at Israelis, obsessing them throughout the early part of the week. Not a few writers chose to focus on Israel's uncanny ability to snatch tragedy from the jaws of triumph. Here was one of Israel's greatest fighter-pilots, the last pilot of a convoy of eight F-16s to beat the odds and make it home safely after destroying Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactors, dying on what was oft considered a routine, even mundane, mission.

Here was the son of an Auschwitz survivor who carried lovingly with him to space a miniature Torah scroll smuggled out of the Vilna Ghetto to Israel.

Here was a battled, hardened pilot — he had volunteered to bring up the rear in the Osirak mission, its most dangerous position — with the sensitivity to dig up from among Yad Vashem's deep archives a picture drawn by an inmate of the Theresienstadt Ghetto. The boy who drew the picture idolized Jules Verne, but he could never have dreamed that a jet fighter-pilot, a citizen-soldier of a Jewish state, would be flying — and dying — in space less than 60 years later.

Here was a man who was unabashedly proud to be an Israeli and a Jew. "We felt he was our messenger to the great wide world, and now feel like a true friend and leader is lost," said Baum.

Israelis were also bemused to find, and noted it repeatedly during the first 24 hours after the disaster, that the shuttle's disintegration was first sighted over Palestine, Texas.

"In many ways the shuttle disaster and the loss of Ramon, someone who represented so much of what was good about Israel, served to dredge up a lot of the other trauma Israelis have gone through in the past few years," said Baum. The intense identification of children with the disaster has also impressed the psychologist.

During a Sunday memorial service for Ramon and his comrades at Tel Aviv's prestigious Herzliya Gymnasium, more than 1,000 teenagers milled around. A hush fell over the schoolyard when a fellow student began to read a stanza from a poem Ramon's wife, Rona, sent him on his second day of orbit:

"The last of my days is perhaps nigh/ near is the day of tears of separation/ but I will wait for thee till my life is extinguished, as Rachel awaited her beloved."

They were captivated by the words, the drama, and a numbing pain with which they could all identify. The chatter picked up again, until a husky voiced youth on the stage began "Hatikvah," Israel's national anthem, and the students immediately rose singing softly, self-consciously.

Many Israelis during the past two weeks had grown accustomed to hearing Rona Ramon's voice as she gave regular updates about her husband on Army Radio.

"Maybe we are cursed. We can't catch a break, even the easy things are hard," said Eyal Oren, a 17-year-old with a wispy mustache said after Monday's memorial service at the Herzliya Gymnasium. "On the other hand, it is a glorious way to die, if you are a pilot, a hero, what better way to be remembered?"

On Monday, a bereaved Rona, agreed. Eyes puffy from crying she said in Houston, "Ilan died a happy man."

Amid the tragedy, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed that Israel's space aspirations were not over.

"The day will come when we will launch more Israeli astronauts into space," Sharon said. "I am sure that each and every one of them will carry in his heart the memory of Ilan Ramon, a pioneer in Israeli space travel."

After the crash, President Bush phoned Sharon to express condolences over the loss of Ramon, a father of four.

Other world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, also expressed their condolences to Sharon.

In Iraq, however, some felt the tragedy was divine justice, and some Palestinians expressed similar thoughts.

On Wednesday Ramon's father, Eliezer Wolferman, said he would have preferred that Ramon remained unknown and alive rather than having died a hero.

Wolferman also told Army Radio that NASA officials had informed the family that the astronauts had some 60 to 90 seconds between the time they could see something had gone wrong and when the shuttle broke into pieces and they were killed.

Also on Wednesday, NASA officials informed Israeli authorities that Ramon's remains had been positively identified. Those remains were expected to be flown to Israel next week.

Ramon sent his final e-mail to his wife last Friday:

"Even though everything here is amazing, I cannot wait until I can see you," he wrote, according to Yediot Ahronot. "A big hug for you and kisses to the kids."

Rona Ramon told reporters Sunday outside her home in Houston that her husband enjoyed every moment he was up in space.

"He was with the people he loved and in the place that he enjoyed so much," she said.

She added that during the entire mission, she had no sense of foreboding.

"The only thing that tears me apart now is that during the liftoff, when we were all 'high,' my youngest daughter yelled out, 'I lost my daddy.' Apparently she was right.''