My Fallen Friend Would Have Been Aghast and Amazed by Today’s Israel

45 years later, he would be amazed by a powerful army and flourishing economy but stunned by growing hate, degraded democracy and arrogant, inciting leaders

Israeli soldiers at Mount Herzl ahead of Israel's Memorial Day, April 16, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

In recent years, on every Yom Kippur and each Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers, I return to my friend Raanan Kolar, of blessed memory. Forty-five years have passed since Raanan was killed near the Suez Canal, but excuse my clichés, the longing only gets greater, the pain grows sharper and the love turns more intense and haunting than ever. While we matured, grew older, made our mistakes and lost our illusions, he remained as young, handsome and pure as he was on the day shrapnel from an Egyptian shell pierced his throat while he stood exposed in the turret of his Patton tank. We have already squandered most of the credit we were given, but he will forever remain a great promise, smothered before its time.

Raanan was the epitome of what Israelis describe as “good boy Jerusalem,” a product of so-called Ashkenazi elites, but only in the good sense of these much-abused terms; his 20 years with us were not enough to discover his weaknesses and frailties. He was smart, educated and honest to a fault, responsible and mature with a gentle soul, a wicked sense of humor and a pixieish smile that still manages, through the tyranny of time, to pierce your heart. The title of Billy Joel’s song “Only the Good Die Young” could have been inscribed on the headstone of his grave at the Mount Herzl military cemetery, as an accurate description rather than a flowery epitaph.

Raanan did not die in vain. He defended his country from grave dangers and terrible threats. Despite his Central European manners, gentle disposition, carefully groomed hair, starched shirts and well-ironed trousers, Raanan embraced the dirt and grime of the Armored Corps and excelled in his military training, including the officers’ course that ended abruptly when he was sent as a company commander to stop the Egyptian onslaught on the banks of the Canal. He came from an immaculate Jerusalem living room with shiny porcelain dishes and lace curtains made in his father’s factory in the city, but ended his life in the brutal and bloody Gehenna of the 1973 war, the costliest since the 1948 War of Independence and the last that can be accurately described as existential.

My grief is not private; Raanan had an exquisite charm that left loving and painful memories among relatives, friends and acquaintances alike. My privilege, which may have become an obsession, is to write about him and his legacy. I often wonder what would have become of Raanan had he stayed with us. He would have considered public service, I presume, but would have eventually followed in his father’s footsteps to business and finance, undoubtedly getting rich while maintaining a genuine commitment to society. Together with an entire generation of young Israelis who volunteered to defend their country without question, his loss remains a painful wound for those who knew them and a deep scar, which might never heal, for the state that exacted his sacrifice.

The stark transition from Remembrance Day to Independence Day begs the question how Raanan would have viewed the Israel he left behind. He would have certainly been amazed by its flourishing economy, a topic he understood better than all of us, as well as its powerful army, which was beaten and demoralized when his life ended. But he would have also been stunned by the vulgarized culture, spreading hatred, growing division, rising nationalism, ongoing occupation, besieged democracy and arrogant, rabble-rousing leadership. With his delicate personality, considerate behavior, loyalty to his homeland as well as his humanistic, liberal values, Raanan has turned in my eyes into a symbol of everything Israel could have been and was supposed to be, but isn’t. He gave it his life and his soul, but Israel let him down, desecrating his beloved memory.