If Rona Ramon had been the widow of an important intellectual or esteemed doctor who was killed in a car accident on the Arava Highway with their son, would her death from an illness have become such an extraordinary national event? Would Israel’s president have eulogized her, would the prime minister have filed by her coffin? Would her casket have been placed at the Peres Center for Peace? Would the public have come in droves to file by her coffin?
Would Israel Hayom have headlined its story on her death “You are All In Heaven”? Would Yediot Ahronoth have devoted nine pages and countless clichés – “Death of a Fighter,” “A Righteous Israeli,” “Embodiment of the Dream of Generations” – to it? And if in addition to working for the Ramon Foundation on behalf of “academic excellence and social leadership,” being the widow of an air force pilot and the bereaved mother of an air force pilot, she had also volunteered with Machsom Watch or was an activist in the Parents Circle-Families Forum – would she still have been turned into a national hero?
Ramon’s story is truly and monumentally tragic. Her pilot husband was killed in the Columbia space shuttle disaster, her pilot son was killed in a training accident, and now comes her death from cancer at a young age.
This is the stuff of which drama, a book or a film is made – but a cultural hero? A national hero with an honorary doctorate and the honor of lighting a torch at the Independence Day ceremony?
Who was Rona Ramon? Most Israelis know nothing about her, including about her activity on behalf of children, which everyone is admiring so much now. Israel has been instructed to worship her because Israel worships bereavement and wallows in the ritual of death, especially of soldiers, and of pilots most of all. Israel has been trained to admire her because Israel admires “the mother of sons,” a generic name. It’s no wonder that her counterpart in this national role, the other mother of sons, Miriam Peretz, was the one to eulogize her.
Until Ramon’s husband was killed in the space shuttle accident, no one had heard of her. Until her son was killed in a training accident, she was still just the widow of the first Hebrew astronaut. The deaths that struck twice are what made her a mythic figure. Widow of and bereaved mother of, not so much because of who she was herself. If not for her personal tragedies, no one would have heard of her.
Then came her public appearances. Not much was said there, hardly anything, but they enhanced her image and made it a heroic myth, as if she had chosen her tragedies. And then came her death from cancer at a young age – and the national tragedy soared. Her body was placed in the wooden coffin in which her husband’s remains were transported, a coffin kept by the air force. Now her name will be added to the institutions and airports that were named for her husband and son.
This country does not lack for tragedies, but the way Ramon is being turned into a cultural hero says a lot more about Israel than it does about the sad fate of the woman who died, as wonderful as those who knew her may attest she was.
Israel yearns for heroes. When they can’t be found, it is desperate to invent them, sometimes out of nothing. It is ready to accept its heroes mainly if they are dead, preferably in uniform, ideally in air force blues.
Had Ilan Ramon been an infantry commander who was killed in an accident in the territories, and had Asaf Ramon been killed in a tank accident in the Golan Heights, they likely would not have become the mythic figures they are. Death in the air is not like death on the ground; a pilot is not the same as a foot soldier.
The widow and the bereaved mother also filled her prescribed role to a tee: taking precisely the Israeli middle line, with no deviation whatsoever; not saying anything that could be controversial; representing the military tragedies, militaristic heroism and macho strength; a woman whose image was defined not by herself, but by the men in her life. This is how we like our heroes. But of what substance are they?
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