Israelis are united today in grief following the tragic death of Asaf Ramon, son of the late fighter pilot and astronaut Ilan Ramon. The younger Ramon had followed in his father’s footsteps into the Israeli Air Force, and was killed Sunday afternoon when his Israel Air Force F-16 crashed in the South Hebron Hills. News reports are here, here, and here. According to this article and some of the others reports, the cause of the crash is not known. Asaf Ramon was buried next to his father Monday afternoon at Kibbutz Nahalal in Northern Israel.
The news has hit Israelis, left and right, religious and secular, very hard as the Ramon family has a special place in Israeli consciousness. The elder Ramon generated enormous national pride as the first Israeli astronaut to take part in the NASA mission. He died, along with the other six crew members, when the shuttle disintegrated shortly before it was due to land.
The death of the younger Ramon, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is almost on the level of “a Biblical tragedy.”
As Uri Dromi, director general of the Mishkenot Sha’ananim conference center in Jerusalem and former chief education officer of the Israeli Air Force pointed out in this article, the elder Ramon was not only the first astronaut, but also a man who broke down barriers in Israeli society:
For many years, the “air force family” was synonymous with an elite group that kept to itself and had its own language and culture, which no outsider could understand. But then Ilan Ramon came along and demolished this mythos. The enormous exposure he received as Israel’s first astronaut reminded all Israelis that he was no more than one of them — someone who had absorbed the values that every family here tries to teach its children, who attended classes in the same school system that we all love to denigrate, who watched the same television programs and heard the same things on the street. He was one of us.
Dromi also sums up the special relationship that the Israeli public had with the younger Ramon:
And then, in that quintessentially Israeli manner, we shifted from grief to joy. Who among us did not find himself tearing up when, during the last graduation ceremony for new pilots, he saw the joyous group in the visitors gallery sporting T-shirts emblazoned with “I love Asaf”? And when the name of the outstanding cadet, Asaf Ramon, was announced, and the cameras focused on the proud mother, Rona, the television — that often depressing and divisive device — for a moment gave every Israeli a taste of days gone by, of the satisfactions that spring up in between the disasters, of the hope that sprouts along the wearying path we tread, of a fate that can still sometimes cause our faces to light up.
The incident is set to reignite a debate over whether sons of bereaved families should be eligible for combat posts in the Israeli military. Currently, they are exempt from combat roles but can take on one with their mother’s signature, but over the coming days there will be voices calling for this rule to be reassessed.