Can There Be Such a Thing as an Israeli Hero?

The death of Asaf Ramon: It may be all too true that the best of us, Israelis, and Palestinians, go young.

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In Israel, where vitriolic self-criticism is the norm, we have become accustomed to living without heroes. As statesmen, our once-admired military leaders have often proven to be inept, corrupt, narrow of vision, devious of execution.

There are exceptions, of course, none more exceptional than astronaut Ilan Ramon, who lost his life in the last flight of the Columbia space shuttle nearly seven years ago. Another might have been Ramon's son Asaf, a young pilot who had set out to follow in the footsteps of his father, and who was killed in a training accident this week.

Can there be such a thing as an Israeli hero? Much of the world appears to have come to believe that there cannot. Many molders of opinion, whether journalists, human rights activists, or present or former world leaders, indicate with unequivocal conviction that Israelis - and, in particular, all Israelis in uniform - have lost their right to be considered extraordinary human beings.

There is an element of racism in this, especially in the implication that Israelis as a whole are so belligerent, brutal and insensitive to Palestinians, they have lost their very humanity - if, in fact, it ever was humanity to begin with.

Following Asaf Ramon's fatal crash, a Haaretz reader from Switzerland wrote in response, "Every Israeli should learn from him how to crush your head on some Hebron rock. Your war and death cult ist [sic] simply disgusting."

There is a sense that the transgressions of Israelis are so grave, that they have lost their very right to grieve over their own very real tragedies. At the same time, there is a sense that Israelis have also lost all right to take pride in themselves, in their accomplishments, or even to believe in their own future.

On the far left, in Israel and across the world, there is a sense that the only heroes among the Jews are those who function as patriots exclusively of the Palestinian cause - those who believe that the Palestinians have every right to a state, but that the Jews, if they ever had such a right, have long since shown themselves morally unworthy.

The Jewish far right has also made a mockery of the word hero, exalting those who shoot innocent Arabs and burn their crops, battle IDF soldiers and brand them Nazis.

Perhaps the time has come to ask, as the Talmud asks, "Who is a true hero?" The sage Ben Zoma responds that the true hero is the person who succeeds in conquering the basest of impulses, the worst of human instincts.

In an age of quietly tyrannical political correctness and instant-messaging, the complex heroism of individual Israelis may have no place. Israelis themselves have by and large learned to hide it, to dismiss it, to denigrate it.

Three days before Asaf Ramon was killed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under pressure from his Likud to put on a display of toughness, told party leaders "We have proved time and again that we are willing to make concessions for peace, but we won't delude ourselves - we are not willing to be freierim."

The word Netanyahu used, a word for which the English translation "suckers" is an anemic equivalent at best, is at the heart of the secret heroism of Israelis.

There is no small element of tragedy in the circumstance that hardline Israelis are often so desparate to act so as to avoid "coming out a freier" that in the end, they cause themselves, their loved ones, and their country tremendous harm.

And there is no small element of irony in the fact that the most truly heroic of Israelis fit precisely the mantle of "freier." People who give of themselves for the sake of others, people willing to do the work when no one else is, people of genuine honor, profound and silent self-esteem, people who see moral complexity without allowing themselves to be paralyzed by cynicism or seduced by simplicity.

Ilan Ramon was a hero not despite his complexity, but in many respects, because of it. In an interview he gave soon after returning as one of eight Israel Air Force pilots who bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 - an interview which was released to the public only many years later - he said:

"You go around on the street just like any person, and you come upon the people of the Land of Israel - shoving, yelling, and all manner of things of that sort - you know what you're headed for, and you often ask yourself, are you willing to give everything you've got for these people, because you live among these people.

"Of course, in the end, you do give, because you give not because of all these people, but because of the people close to you."

On Monday, as preparations were underway for the burial of Asaf Ramon beside his father's grave, Netanyahu's voice on Army Radio was that of a different man, the very human brother of an army officer and fellow member of a commando unit, who gave his life in 1976 leading a mission to rescue 100 hostages held in Entebbe, Uganda.

Netanyahu's voice was that of another kind of silent Israeli hero, a member of a family who has lost a loved one. His voice was that of the Israeli who knows most intimately, that it is the freier who, in the end, is responsible both for Israel's survival and for its moral compass.

For many years I wore the uniform of the IDF with pride, specifically because of the heroic freiers with whom I served. I learned that for every story making world headlines, and justifiably so, in which IDF men are accused of undue violence against Palestinians, there are easily scores of unreported incidents in which IDF commanders, enlisted men and reservists, marshaling their creativity and their individuality and their humanity, have aided and refrained from injuring Palestinian civilians, often endangering their own lives in the process.

But the secret heroism of Israelis is by no means confined to the military. Large numbers of Israelis work tirelessly, heroically, to help pave the way to a common future with the Palestinians. Many Israelis have opened their hearts to helping refugees from foreign genocides. Their stories go largely unnoticed abroad, in no small part because it takes work to make a people long marketed as villains, into flesh and blood fellow humans.

This is the truth. It is politically incorrect in the extreme. It muddies the colors of cardboard ideology and blanket support for one angelic side over the diabolical.

In a post-modern world, many of Israel's true heroes may have no place. Abroad, extremists of the right and left are often singled out for recognition as heroes, while the people who simply get up in the morning and keep the state safe, are dismissed as fence-sitters or dupes.

In a post-modern world, we have come to believe that self-defense, self-esteem, compassion, love of country and love of peace are issues of the left and the right. It is the true hero, though, who realizes that all of these together are parts of the same whole, the conquest of our lowest impulses for the sake of our best version of a reflection of the heavens.

It may be all too true, that the best of us go young. I have spoken with Palestinians who say the same thing. For those of us left to grieve, there is a constant impulse to give in to revenge, to fury, to callousness. Heroism may be nothing more than defying all of these, and seeking, in our feeble way, to follow the example of our best and our lost.


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