He rescued not only lives – but faith in humankind as Arab world mourns Israeli who died saving Bedouin family from drowning
By David. E. Kaplan
Yesterday’s heroes in parts of the Western world are tumbling but others are emerging. Unlike the ingloriously departing generals, politicians, presidents and traders that included humans in their merchandise, today’s heroes are ordinary people who seek not fame or glory. They are simply doing their job.
But it is anything but “simply” as they risk their lives doing it, and all too often, pay the ultimate price!
How can one not be moved by seeing the frequent profiles on CNN of doctors and nurses after months of dealing with Corona patients, succumbing to the disease themselves. You see their photographs and learn of their experiences. You hear their stories of putting in 18-hour shifts a day, not seeing their families and sleeping in congested passageways before returning to their wards.
To this growing list of heroes – ordinary people called upon to perform the extraordinary – add the name of 45-year-old Michael Ben-Zikri, an Israeli who drowned while rescuing a Bedouin family from drowning in a lake near Ashkelon on July 3.
The family, all residents of the Bedouin town of Hura in Israel’s southern Negev region, three children, aged 14, 10 and 7 and their 40-year-old aunt, found themselves caught in turbulence. Luckily, their frantic cries caught the attention of Ben-Zikiri. Successfully rescuing them, he then – while still in the water – suffered extreme exhaustion and disappeared from sight. Rescue forces were called to search for Ben-Zikri and sadly found him without any signs of life. Magen David Adom medics pronounced him dead at the scene.
His brave action will not be forgotten and following the Foreign Ministry sharing the story on its social media accounts in Persian and Arabic, Ben-Zikri emerged “a symbol of co-existence between Jews and Muslims”.
The positive responses across the Arab world were quick, like this from an Iraqi commentator:
“This is true humanitarianism. There is no difference between humans; God has taught us to love one another.”
While all too often, politicians across the divides will call each other names that should embarrass them. Ordinary people can tell a different story as revealed by the numerous internet users from all across the Arab and Muslim world who were touched by the story of Michael Ben-Zikri and shared their condolences with his family.
“Humanity has no religion, may he dwell in heaven and blessings come upon his families and loved ones for his noble act,” wrote another user.
A user from Saudi Arabia by the name of Othman, mentioned in his comment a passage from the Quran in which God said that whoever saves a single soul is considered as if he saved all people.
Is this not reminiscent from the Mishnah’s (Talmud) original text of the famous Jewish idea that:
“Whoever saves one life […] saves an entire world.” (Sanhedrin 4:5).
A user from Egypt hit the nail on the head with:
“The fact we have political differences with you guys doesn’t mean there is a disagreement between us about humanitarianism.”
Clearly, these users recognise that “there must be another way”, reminding this writer of the song of that name by the 2009 Israeli Eurovision musical duo, Noa who is Jewish and Mira Awad who is Arab. This sentiment was captured by another user from Iraq who wrote:
“This is the people of Israel who love all and help all.”
The London-based pan-Arabic Saudi news outlet Asharq Al-Awsat published rare words of praise for an Israeli. On the outlet’s website, it ran an article describing the many Palestinians Bedouins who visited the family of Michael Ben-Zikri to pay condolences and gave a detailed description of how the Israeli saved the Bedouin family.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry’s social media manager in the Arabic language, Yonatan Gonen, said that the post was shared all around the Arab and Muslim world.
“Users from Morocco to Iraq, from Oman to Syria, could identify with the story and unanimously pointed at Michael’s heroism on a very large scale, some even pointed Israel’s coexistence as a role model.”
When he was laid to rest in Ashkelon cemetery, dozens of Hura residents attended his funeral. Ben-Zikri is survived by his wife and three children.
In a historic first, Michael Ben Zikri’s family will be awarded the Civil Medal of Distinguished Service, to commend “exemplary behaviour in Israeli society.”
Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin will present at the end of the shiva mourning period, Ben-Zikri’s wife, Cheli, and their children the award. Attending the ceremony at the president’s residence in Jerusalem will be the al-Karem family from Hura.
How noble acts can so change perceptions and public discourse.
Only a few days earlier in July, Israel Arab lawmaker Ayman Odeh, was subjected to a barrage of insults from his Jewish fellow parliamentarians for participating in a video conference against the proposed “annexation” such as:
“Ayman Odeh belongs in the Ramallah parliament.”
This was no way to talk of the head of the Joint List faction who, whether one agrees or disagrees, had every right to oppose the annexation as do many Israeli citizens, which according to a recent opinion poll, more oppose than support the annexation.
Odeh, however, was unfazed. Only days after being verbally assaulted by his parliamentary peers, he reacted to Ben-Zikri’s bravery commenting:
“We will make sure his noble act will influence the next generations of Jews and Arabs.”
The Joint Arab List Chairman said further that “humanity is what will win” and that the Bedouin town of Hura will name a street after Ben-Zikri.
A frequently outspoken critic of the Israeli government, former Arab MK Taleb el-Sana attended the funeral and vowed that Ben-Zikri’s memory will also be honoured by the naming of a street after him in Lakiya, the Bedouin town in Israel’s Southern District, where el-Sana lives with his wife and five children.
He told the grieving family that “the entire Arab community, from the north to the south, each house, shares your pain.”
Naming streets after Israelis in Arab towns would really be a new: ‘sign of the times’!
While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves. LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs
From Lithuania to South Africa – a ringside vista from Tel Aviv down memory lane
By Dr. Gail Lustig
If anyone should be telling this story it should be my late father, Donny Loon, who passed away on the 16th January 2011 in Israel. It is the kind of story he liked hearing, reading, telling and retelling!
My first taste of his storytelling was when I was in my teens and he was hospitalized in a nursing home for a collapsed vertebral disc. It had been caused by Brucellosis contracted by drinking unpasteurized milk while doing a house call at a patient`s farm. He wrote a riveting short story which he read to me during a visit, telling me it had been written “by the priest next to him in the room!”
This story has taken decades to tell and was written in the days of lockdown in Tel Aviv , while going through some photo albums and discovering two old black and white photographs that aroused my curiosity more than usual.
Their story begins in Ponevezh, Lithuania where my grandfather, David Loon, and most of his five brothers, Arthur, George, Lazar, Issy and Maurice and one sister, Hetty, were born. David was born with clubfeet; proving a serious handicap in his motor development. The congenital problem for which he was teased endlessly might have spurred him on to take up boxing which was popular amongst the Jewish youth of Lithuania. He excelled at the sport and before long he was given the nick-name of “Siki” after a French-Senegalese light heavyweight boxer and world champion in the early part of the last century.
The Loon brothers were close; they enjoyed life, were social creatures, and supported one another in many ways. The family connection was always particularly important to them and their children developed close ties. David took time to teach his son Donny the punches and rules of boxing and although he never formally took up the sport, he certainly had a good knowledge of it.
In the early 1950s, Donny left the family and settled in Cape Town with Rita his young wife – my mother – who had grown up in the southern most city in Africa. He set up a general practice and soon became one of the popular young doctors in Bellville; where he treated people from every background and walk of life.
Donny hankered after his childhood environment with its warm atmosphere and exciting prospects, and a spirit that filled him with hope. He hadn`t taken to Cape Town, the city of his wife`s family. He was irritated by the soft, white sea sand that got in between his toes. He did not like biting on chicken pieces coated with sand on Muizenberg beach where he sat on a beach-chair with a towel over his legs while his family dived into the warm waves of the Indian Ocean.
It was perfectly natural, that as soon as circumstances permitted, he would pack his Chevrolet and head northwards on the National Road with his young family to visit his parents and cousins in Johannesburg. And so in August, after a brief stopover in Beaufort West, Donny forged ahead, hour after hour along the lonely road until they reached Magaliesburg, near Johannesburg. The family had been booked in at the Moon Hotel, a modest holiday venue.
How thrilling it must have been to discover that the Moon Hotel had been chosen as the training base for the young Australian boxing champion, Jimmy Carruthers, an Australian bantamweight champion who was in his early twenties and had come to fight the South African World Champion, Vic Toweel in November 1952. This would be the first time since 1908 that an Australian would be fighting for a world title. Toweel, of Lebanese roots, was the first South African to hold a world title.
Within a few hours of settling into the hotel, it was completely natural that Donny and Jimmy meet, and an instant rapport developed between them. He learnt that Jimmy was one of eight children born to an English wharf worker in Sydney who had developed boxing skills at an early age. Jimmy was friendly, a little lonely, with an open personality and although devoted to a tight and demanding schedule for training, enjoyed Donny`s lighthearted and warm interest in him, his stories and jokes and knowledge of boxing.
He and his trainer shared some pleasant hours talking to Donny and Rita who loved a laugh and the fact that her baby had taken to the boxer who clearly had a way with children.
Before long, Donny found himself drawn into the pending fight between Toweel and Jimmy. It was clear to him that Jimmy had a great chance of beating the favourite but he didn`t seem to have a clear plan of how to go about it. Toweel was defending the title for the fourth time. He had won 200 bouts before turning professional, and now, on home territory, it seemed that everything was in his favour. What was apparent was that Vic was slow to get started in the ring whereas Jimmy was quick and agile with a machine -gun like hand speed.
Within no time, Donny realized that the way to go about beating Toweel, was to move like lightning, straight after the bell, pull as many punches as possible, thus surprising his opponent and hoping for a knockout.
He proposed his plan to Carruthers` trainer, teaching him how to use the stopwatch he had with him (a useful instrument in a doctor`s medical bag), in the training programme, timing Jimmy`s responses and reaction time. And so it happened that every morning for the next week, just as the sun rose, Donny would get up early, secretly meet Jimmy in the training ring, before Toweel`s team appeared. Over and over he would demonstrate to Jimmy how to improve his performance straight after the bell, until he literally reacted within a split second.
A ‘Fist’ful Of Pounds
Of course the Loon uncles and cousins were in on the story and immediately understood that if luck were on their side, it might be the perfect opportunity to back the underdog and score a personal small betting victory.
Before the match, we returned to Cape Town. Donny continued with his routine and but for the photos, Jimmy Carruthers faded from his mind.
Before long it was the 15th of November. Everyone in South Africa who enjoyed competitive sport, crowded around the radios to listen to the match. The Loon brothers and Donny, by now, loyal supporters of Jimmy, were in on the excitement on opposite sides of South Africa.
And of course you`ve guessed it!
The bell was sounded; Carruthers pounced on Toweel, and in just on 2 minutes 19 seconds and 110 accurate punches, knocked Vic Toweel out to become the new light bantam weight champion of the world!!
The tactic of moving like lightning after the bell sounded, had worked like a charm.
And today, while tidying my photos, I came across these two, which in their naiveté, reveal so much!
Jimmy Carruthers gave up competitive boxing in 1954 at a young age, having made enough money to settle down, marry and run his pub in Sydney, Australia. In one article I read on him, he was described as a unionist and a proponent of world peace!
And that`s when I really understood what had bought the two men, Donny and Jimmy together – hardly the ability to knock out, but rather to change the world in a very different way. Each dreamt of world peace; it would unite them forever and more important be passed down in the image of a chubby baby secure and fearless on the knees of a champion boxer – me!
About the writer:
Gail Loon-Lustig, born in Cape Town, lived in Bellville. After completing Medical School, Gail made Aliya in 1976 and runs a Home Care Unit in greater Tel Aviv area. Inspired to “give back to society”, she counsels young doctors and health workers and has guided the teaching of ‘home care’ at her alma mater UCT. Gail has volunteered at Telfed and the South African retirement home Beth Protea where for many years she focusses on medical issues of the residents. Interested in many different aspects of life, especially those that involve her family.
The numbers are far too many to bear. Their names are etched in our national consciousness. We take succour in tales of their incredible bravery and courage, their daring and chutzpah, their duty and sacrifice. The young men and women who through 72 years of the modern state of Israel have paid the ultimate price in defense of their country and the many who have fallen simply because they were targeted for being Israeli.
Yom Hazikaron, Israeli Remembrance day and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day are upon us. At the founding of the modern state of Israel, it was decided to have these two national holidays together – a genius idea because we have a heightened sense of the sacrifice and the cost of many for us to have the flourishing, democratic State we call home.
As the sun sets and the flags lowers signaling the start of Yom Hazikaron, our thoughts will turn to those we have lost, and our hearts open a little wider to welcome in their bereaved families. The first siren will wail its mournful cry, which pierces the soul and calls the nation to attention.
This year, commemorations will be even more poignant. The threat posed by Covid-19 and new social distancing norms means that visits to military cemeteries which bereaved families and many citizens consider sacred; will be forbidden. There will be no unified ceremonies at the call of the second siren, there will be no heart wrenching poems and prayers.
This Yom Hazikaron, solidarity will take a different form, but it will be as strong as ever. We are at a time when we are acutely reminded of the fragility of life. As those sirens wail, so we will bow our heads and tears will fall. We take 24 hours to go back in time and remember the name of those felled in battle and those whose lives tragically ended. We will remember the names. Names like Yoni Netanyahu, Roi Klein and Michael Levin. Names like Hadar Goldin, Oron Shaul and so many who fell in our defense.
We remember the names like Taylor Force, Dafna Meir and Hallel Ariel. They suffered stabbings, shootings, suicide bombings and other murderous acts. So many, too many. We will listen to the stories and we will remember them.
We will remember 23,816 soldiers and security forces personnel fallen since the birth of the modern state in 1948. This year, 42 more fallen were added to a list that nobody wants to be on. The IDF also recognizes 83 that were disabled who passed away and are regarded as fallen soldiers and 3,153 citizens who have died from terror attacks.
Behind every number, is a name – and a story. Behind every number are bereaved families, for whom every day is a bitter reminder. Yom Hazikaron is that one day where the whole nation wraps its arms around them. This year we will have to find a new way to do it.
And then in a matter of moments, everything changes.
And as the clock changes, so too, does the mood in Israel. We observe that annual changing of the guard as we move from the intensity of grief to that of gratitude and celebration, understanding full well what sacrifices so many made so we can live in freedom. This year it is even more poignant as the flyovers and fireworks have come to a halt. While the barbecues may be lit, there is a tinge of sadness in the atmosphere as the threat of Coronavirus and social distancing means that we will not gather in each other’s homes, on the beaches and in the forests. We will celebrate as one – from the safety of our balconies as individuals and families. As we toast to the State of Israel, there will be deeper, meaning to that salute to life – L’Chaim!
There will be a changing of the guard both in traditions and emotions, but distance and restrictions will in no way diminish the unity and pride of Israelis. This is our strength.
In tribute to Johnny Clegg (7 June 1953 – 16 July 2019)
By Rolene Marks
Every immigrant will tell you that we take a small piece of our country of origin to our new home. For some scatterlings of Africa, it is biltong and braaivleis and for others it is something else. For me, the little piece of South Africa that I brought with was the soundtrack to my childhood and its pervasive memory – Johnny Clegg.
I will never forget the first time I heard his unique blend of traditional Zulu music and modern rock. Sitting in the cinema watching the movie, Jock of the Bushveld, I was enamoured by its star, a rather robust and gorgeous Staffordshire terrier but it was the theme song that evoked the strongest reaction in me. “Great heart”, the hit song transported me to wide open African plains, blue skies and reminded me of the power of courage. I was courage. You were courage.
And so began a lifelong love of Johnny Clegg’s music, joined by his trailblazing bandmates, Juluka and then Savuka.
Music has always had a great ability to unite, and throughout South Africa’s darkest years when Apartheid sought to build impenetrable walls between people of different races, it was Clegg and his band that were then called Juluka, pulled them down with their unique sound.
Blending Zulu and rock elements coupled with traditional, energetic Zulu dancing, they electrified South Africans who could not get enough. It was unlike anything we had ever heard and Clegg who faced harassment and sometimes censorship and the risk of arrest was the front man whose lyrics were both overtly and covertly political. Juluka disbanded in 1985 but would re-band in 1986 as Savuka.
Clegg had succeeded in doing the impossible – uniting the fractured folk of South Africa and flipping the Apartheid regime the proverbial finger.
Clegg and his band’s crossover appeal were not just restricted to South Africa.
The artists whose first album was titled Universal Men has universal appeal and attained tremendous global success which was then virtually unheard of for South African artists who were enduring a cultural boycott.
Such was Clegg’s global success as the front man of the band that in France he became fondly known as “le Zoulou Blanc” (the White Zulu) and was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres (Knight of Arts and Letters) by the French Government in 1991.
This was not the only international honour that would be conferred on him.
In 2011, Clegg received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from City University of New York School of Law and in 2015, Clegg was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.
Clegg spoke famously of his Jewish roots and while not observant, he never hid or denied it. He was proud of it even incorporating aspects of his identity in his music, most notably in his songs “Jericho“, “Jerusalem“ and “Warsaw 1943“. Clegg also had a favourable relationship with Israel and lived in the country for a short time during his childhood and saw the country as a spiritual homeland.
During the second Intifada (Palestinian uprising) when approached by notorious anti-Israel activist (and Jew) Ronnie Kasrils to sign a petition that he and his group had written castigating the Jewish state, he had quietly refused to do so. He felt that the issue was more complex.
Johnny Clegg was a humble man with the heart of a warrior and this was how he fought pancreatic cancer that would eventually lead to his death. Faced with this major health battle, he embarked on a final tour to thank his fans for their support throughout his tremendous career.
Johnny Clegg passed away on the 16th of July 2019 was laid to rest with quiet modesty in Westpark’s Jewish cemetery. South Africans will gather on Friday 26th of July to pay tribute to one of the nation’s greatest sons and icons.
Dear Johnny, as you make your crossing, it is we who should be thanking you. Hamba Kahle Johnny. Thank you, Ngiyabonga for the music, for the memories, for being the light in the darkest days of our history, for uniting us and for your pride in your identity. Thank you for being our Great Heart.
*Feature picture:Jo Hale/Redferns via Getty Images
The passing of a French pilot in Nice this week, brought back memories of the heroism of two South Africans in Israel’s ‘The Great Escape’.
By David E. Kaplan
When the news broke in Israel on the 28 March 2019 that the Michel Bacos – the pilot the pilot of the Air France flight from Tel Aviv that was hijacked in 1976 and landed in Entebbe – had died at age 95, it brought back memories and a huge amount of pride.
“He refused to abandon his passengers, who were taken hostage because they were Israeli or of Jewish origin, risking his own life,” Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice, where Bacos lived, announced Tuesday on social media. “Michel bravely refused to surrender to antisemitism and barbarism and brought honor to France.”
When the hijackers were planning to let Bacos, the rest of his crew and the remaining non-Jewish hostages go, he refused.
“I gathered my crew and told them there was no way we were going to leave – we were staying with the passengers to the end,” he said. “The crew refused to leave, because this was a matter of conscience, professionalism and morality…. I couldn’t imagine leaving behind not even a single passenger.”
While President Reuven Rivlin said Wednesday that Bacos was “a quiet hero and a true friend of the Jewish people. May his memory be a blessing,”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that the pilot “stayed with the hostages through all their hardships, until IDF soldiers – led by my brother Yoni – freed him in a daring operation. I bow my head in his memory and salute Michel’s bravery.”
One of the bravest and most successful rescue operations in human history, many who were around at the time will recall where they were when the story broke. I was a law student in South Africa in 1976 travelling by car between Durban and Cape Town and was sitting in a Wimpy Bar in Grahamstown when the restaurant’s TV broke to Breaking News to announce the unfolding drama. Little did I know at the time that years later I would be interviewing two South African heroes who participated in the rescue Dr. Jossy Faktor and Ricky Davis. Both had been members of South African Jewish youth movements before immigrating to Israel.
The crisis that led to the Entebbe Raid began on the 27th June, when four terrorists seized an Air France plane, flying from Israel to Paris with 248 passengers on board. The hijackers – two from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two from Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang – diverted the aircraft, ‘flight 139’ to Entebbe. There, the hijackers were joined by three more colleagues who then demanded the release of fifty-three of their associates held in jails in Israel and four other countries. The clock was ticking. If the detainees were not released, they would begin killing hostages.
Shades of the Shoah
The plot of the unfolding saga drew in a global audience mesmerized by the twists and turns of a modern-day Homeric epic. Abduction and rescue – the stage was set for a cataclysmic clash of wills. On the one side, an anguished Israel, while on the other, German and Palestinian terrorists aided and abetted by one of Africa’s most notorious dictators, President Idi Amin. Stories abounded by this man’s evil proclivities, notable that he had a certain taste for eating his enemies.
It was said that his palace fridge had been a real ‘who’s who’ in Ugandan politics – leftovers to go with the salad. Some 3,400 kilometres away, a nervous Israeli government was agonizing which way to move. No options were risk free.
The terrorists then played a card that simplified the decision.
They separated the passengers – Jews from non-Jews – releasing the latter. Shades of the Shoah colored the unfolding drama and Israel now stood alone.
It also knew what it had to do.
It was a proud cast of characters who participated in the mission dubbed by the Israeli military – “Operation Thunderbolt”. Amongst the medical team on board one of the four C-130 Hercules aircraft, was a former South African from Pretoria, Dr. Jossy Faktor. A gynecologist and obstetrician, Jossy at the time was serving in the permanent force of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) and would later rise to become its Surgeon General.
When the call came summoning the 36-year-old doctor to report for duty, Jossy and his wife Barbara were clicking champagne glasses celebrating the tenth wedding anniversary of their old Habonim friends, the Kessels in Ra’anana. Little did they all know when Jossey hurriedly stepped out of Terry and Carol’s front door, that he was about to enter the history books.
At roughly the same time, 21-year-old Ricky Davis was with his paratrooper unit at Wingate when the call came through. Only two years earlier, Ricky, a member of Betar in Port Elizabeth, made Aliyah and within three months joined the IDF. “We immediately packed up and assembled at a base near Petach Tikva. Although we were aware of the hijack drama playing out at Entebbe, we had no idea that we would be connected. We went on so many hair-raising missions into Lebanon and Jordan in those days that we assumed it was another of the ‘usual ops.”
Once assembled at the base, “Everything became top secret. We began training, still not knowing our destination. Only at the last stage, were we brought into the picture. My unit was to secure the escape by destroying, in advance, anything that could jeopardize our escape.”
“No Going Back”
The next day saw Jossy being briefed by the Surgeon General, the late Dan Michaeli. “I was instructed to quickly put together an aero-medical team.” Although Jossy’s specialization was gynecology, he had been trained in aviation medicine that included ensuring the health of aircrews and aero-medical evacuations. While there had been missions and escapades in the past, nothing would come close to what he was to experience in the next few days. “The success of the operation was secrecy, and because the public at the time was well aware of the hostage crisis, we had to come up with something to deflect attention. Also, we needed to obtain a large supply of blood from Magen David Adom (Israel’s Red Cross), and that necessitated a credible cover story. We did not want anyone – least of all the media – questioning why we suddenly needed so much blood. Because nothing quite like this had ever been attempted, we had no idea of what casualties to expect. Anyway, the word went out that a crisis was developing on the northern border with Lebanon, and we would need medical teams and blood. The story held, and we took off with only those involved in the operation in the know.”
The final briefings were divided according to the different roles to be performed by the various participants. “We were briefed by Dr. Ephraim Sneh, who was the overall commander of the medical teams.”
Jossy describes the flight as long and uneventful.
“We left Friday morning and landed at Sharem el Sheik, stopping for essentially two reasons. Firstly, for refueling. We had enough to get us to Entebbe, but no more. And as we did not expect the ground staff at Entebbe to accommodate us by refueling our planes, we needed sufficient fuel to take off after the rescue and make it to Nairobi.” The other reason for the stopover was no less intriguing. “When we took off in Israel, the Cabinet had still not decided to go through with the mission. The risks obviously weighed enormously with them and so wanted to keep the option to abort open until the last moment. On the runway at Sharem El Sheik, we received the final green light. Now there was no going back.”
The last stretch of the flight to Entebbe “we flew at a very low altitude to avoid radar detection. The turbulence was heavy, but it did not bother me,” says Jossy. “I recall there was very little chatting; everyone was so wrapped up with their own thoughts. I spent much of my time in the cockpit as the captain, Amnon Halivni, was a good friend of mine.”
Jossy traveled with the medical teams in the fourth Hercules. “Our plane was virtually empty ready to accommodate the hostages and expected wounded.”
The other three planes carried ground forces, with the black Mercedes Benz and Land Rovers on board the first aircraft. The word out on the street was that the Mercedes was owned by an Israeli civilian and was apparently sprayed black so it would appear as the Ugandan’s president’s car when approaching the terminal building. However, the intelligence was dated. The two Ugandan sentries on duty that morning were well aware that their President had recently purchased a white Mercedes replacing his black one. They ordered the motorcade to stop. Had they had the opportunity for a closer look they would have also noticed that the steering wheel was on the wrong side of the car, but by that time, they were both dead.
In fear of prematurely alerting the terrorists inside the terminal, the subterfuge motorcade sped up and the assault teams quickly went into action.
Jossy’s aircraft had been the last to land. Throughout the operation “we stayed on board, preparing for the arrival of our passengers. It took just under forty minutes for the first casualties to arrive. The waiting was the worst. We felt like sitting ducks as the battle ensured. In the end we needed only six stretchers, one of which was used for Yoni Netanyahu, who died on the way to the aircraft.”
Ricky’s unit, tasked with getting away safely, took care of the Russian Migs on the airport tarmac. “The real danger was that they could give chase, easily catch us, and shoot us down. We were not taking any chances and blew them up with anti-tank missiles.” Adds this warrior, “Yes, we stopped for coffee in Nairobi on the return flight home.”
The enormity of what these daring men had pulled off “only sunk in,” says Jossy “when we touched down at Tel Nof Airbase and were met by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres. It was only then, safe on Israeli soil, that people felt free to express their emotions.”
In the immediate aftermath of the rescue mission, the government of Uganda convened a session of the UN Security Council to seek official condemnation of Israel for violating Ugandan sovereignty. The Security Council ultimately declined to pass any resolution on the matter. The words of Israel’s ambassador to the UN at the time, Chaim Herzog, in his address to the Council resonates no less today: “We are proud not only because we have saved the lives of over a hundred innocent people – men, women and children – but because of the significance of our act for the cause of human freedom.”
Personal tribute to a friend and ally – the renowned journalist, publisher and lover of Israel who passed away in Johannesburg South Africa in November 2018.
By Kathy Kaler, CEO and host of Afternoon Drive Show, Chai FM
Being a radio presenter, I consider myself privileged. I get to engage with thousands of people daily via ChaiFM. People share their opinions, fears and hopes with me – daily. And all are important and yet most of our listeners I will never meet.
Except for Moses Moyo!
His text messages came in to the Morning Mayhem almost every morning since 2013 until his sudden passing.
Moses’ messages were frequently in defence of Israel while at other times comments about service delivery in Johannesburg, but most often they were song requests – Yaakov Shwekey, Moshe Peretz or Benny Friedman.
He signed them all ‘Moshe’.
It was only when I received a video of Moses singing along (to Benny Friedman’s “Mazal and Brocha” nogal!!) that I realised I was engaging with someone from “outside” our often-insular community.
But I was wrong.
Moses Moyo was someone very much engaged in the Jewish community.
On every level.
He loved our culture, our music, our religious rites, our traditions and even our quirks.
And he loved Israel. Passionately.
Moses understood profoundly, the importance of the Jewish state, not only to Jews but what Israel means to the world and her place in the greater scheme of things.
Always interested in hearing the human stories, I took the initiative to call Moses up one day and invite him for a cup of coffee. And that was where our friendship began.
In a little coffee shop in Glenhazel. It was 2014.
I came to know Moses as a great defender of the underdog – whether he was standing up for Israeli actions to defend her borders or the plight of African asylum seekers in Hillbrow. Moses stood for truth and all that was right in the world. It is no secret. Anyone who knew him will tell you that.
A year ago, Moses planned to run the Jerusalem Marathon as part of the DL Link #RunForRecovery team. Due to issues with his passport, he had to forego the 2018 Marathon but had it on his radar to run this year. Moses was incredibly positive and for him it was just a postponement.
Little did anyone know…
In October last year, while listening to the Morning Mayhem on ChaiFM I heard about Moses’ untimely death. Like so many others who knew him, I was filled with disbelief. And sadness. And loss. Not only had I personally lost a friend, but as a Jewish and Zionist community, we had all lost an ally.
After his passing, the Jewish Community started fundraising for Moses’ children’s education.
Education… A tree of knowledge, right? The South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) and the Jewish National Fund (JNF) will also be planting a tree in Israel in Moses Moyos’ name. I will be at that ceremony. Two trees. A tree of knowledge for his children in the form of the trust fund and a physical tree in the Holy Land.
Moses would have loved that.
What a testament it is to our community organisations to honour a wonderful man who was so loyal to our community and did so much to bring Christian and Jewish Zionists together.
This year I am part of the Jerusalem Marathon 2019 DL Link #RunForRecovery team. I will be running the 10km Marathon.
This morning I went for my early morning run on the streets of Jerusalem, and as I ran down Ben Yehuda into Jaffa road – my tears flowed.
And I let them.
They were tears for Moses Moyo.
They were tears of Gratitude.
Of Simply Being Alive. (Eventually I had to decide whether to run or cry – doing both is near impossible).
So, I ran.
This Friday I will be running for Moses Moyo to complete what he wasn’t able to.
My official DL Link racing shirt (yes, apparently a Marathon is a race!) has his name on the back along with the names of the two other warriors for whom I am running. The red DL Link Jerusalem Marathon 2019 Tour T-shirts have his name on the shirt of all 85 runners on the team.
Because we are all Moses Moyo
Champions of the Underdog. Pursuers of Truth. And Proud Zionists.
Onward and Upward. Always.
More on Moyo (By the Editor)
Moyo was the founder and chairperson of ‘Friends of the Inner-city Forum’, a community-based organisation in the inner city of Johannesburg. He was also a founding director of Ekuphumuleni hospice. He played an important role in the creation of Tirisano Inner-city Housing Co-operative – an initiative to help people buy flats in the inner-city of Johannesburg on a rent-to-buy basis.
He was a reporter with Eyewitness News.
Moyo was a pro-Israel activist and raised money by offering to run in the Jerusalem Marathon for the DL link, a cancer survivor organisation.
Moyo was the Deputy President of the Association of Independent Publishers.
Kathy Kaler is the CEO 0f Chai FM, a Johannesburg based radio station and is host of the Afternoon Drive Show.
With the passage of time, Southern African volunteers who fought in Israel’s 1948 War of independence are passing away, and with them, a living link to the genesis of modern Israel
By David E. Kaplan
Israel’s 1948 War of Independence , despite all the odds was won decisively.
So how come we are still fighting it?
Mainly because of the nature of what is “decisive”. The current theatre of battle is not “On the Ground”, “in the Air” and “at Sea” but “in the court’ of world opinion”. Today’s “Battleplan” involves documenting and securing the truth, so that the history of the War of Independence is not subverted by revisionists and purveyors of falsehood as is wont by BDS in South Africa that ‘attacks’ Israel not over its dispute over territory but its very existence. It opens the file not of 1967, when Israel conquered the West Bank in a defensive war, but the “1948 file” that transforms the Israel-Palestine debate from a negotiation over territory, into an argument about the conflict’s older and deeper roots – the establishment of a Jewish state.
Who has been spearheading the campaign of recording the role of volunteers who came to fight in Israel’s war of birth in 1948 is former South African, Smoky Simon, Chairman of World Machal, today 98 years old. (The word MACHAL is an acronym for the Hebrew, Mitnadvei Chutz L’Aretz, meaning “Volunteers from Overseas.”)
Once a fighter plane navigator, Smoky is still ‘navigating’; this time securing a flight path towards educating the young and the old, Israelis and foreigners on the existential contributions to the 1948 war by the 4500 volunteers from abroad – over 800 of them Southern Africans – who put their futures on hold, and risked their lives to fight for a nation in the making.
Sir Winston Churchill’s apt depiction after the Battle or Britain that “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” could equally apply to the debt the State of Israel owes to these volunteers.
They left jobs, interrupted their studies, and some even postponed weddings, while others brought their weddings forward to come on ‘honeymoon’ to fight in Israel’s War of Independence as did Smoky and his wife, Myra, who was the first meteorological instructor in the Israeli Air Force. “Many of her graduates became squadron and base commanders,” reveals Smoky proudly.
Literally rescheduling their lives, they dropped everything to come and fight for the fledgling Jewish state. In cockpits and on board ships, in tanks and armored vehicles, treating the wounded in hospitals and on the front lines, these young idealistic men and woman – Jews and non-Jews – helped change the tide in Israel’s War of Independence and forged the birth of a nation.
One in this illustrious “band of brothers” who participated in the most exciting adventure for a Jew in 2000 years was another former South African from Johannesburg, Joe Leibowitz, who passed away in January 2019 in Hod Hasharon in central Israel. It is important with the passing of these Machalniks to record and relate the service they performed.
Joe was born in Lithuania “where a Jew knew what anti-Semitism was” and came to South Africa at the age on nine. Then, three years after WWII and the prospect of a Jewish state, “I was torn to pieces inside. I had a strong feeling that we had a moral pact with the slaughtered Six Million of Nazi Europe. This was the first chance to fight back against a world that hadn’t cared.”
He reveals in writings recorded in Henry Katzew’s “South Africa’s 800 – The Story of SA Volunteers In Israel’s War of Birth” that his thoughts at the time were “mixed up with other things.” He felt he was “in rebellion against the old supine ways. Our rabbis used to snatch us indoors when we threw stones at Gentiles throwing stones at us. The rabbis broke our spirit before we could develop it. Turning the other cheek was no answer.”
Then when Philip Zuckerman of the South African Zionist Federation approached him to serve, 21 year-old Joe volunteered without hesitation. “The battle inside me was resolved. I could be helpful to my people.”
The ‘Plane’ Truth
Arriving in pre-state Israel on the 10th May 1948, this ex-SAAF air gunner WWII veteran with 102 sorties under his belt in North Africa and Italy, noted at Sde Dov airfield in Tel Aviv, that the strength of the nascent State’s “Air Force” comprised “two Rapides, a Fairchild and a Bonanza (ZS BWR).”
Hardly a force to hold back invading armies coming in from all directions!
With no option of being an air-gunner, Joe teamed up with South African pilot, Elliot Rosenberg, becoming a “bomb -chucker” of one of the Rapides, a fabric covered bi-plane. “Bomb-chuckers” as they were called, carried 25 and 50 pound bombs on their laps, and on reaching the enemy target, the safety pins were released and the bombs were manually dropped onto the target.
It was a nerve-wracking business – so much could go wrong!
With the door of the plane removed, “there was always the possibility,” said Joe that “in leaning over while chucking out the bomb to slip, and follow the bomb.” The plane carried no parachutes and communication between the pilot and “chucker” was by torch with “a flash from the pilot, indicating “Over target” , and a flash from the “chucker” “All bombs unloaded.”
Despite the lack of sophistication of the nature of this war over the skies of Israel, there was some compensation for the airman recalled Joe: “We were so admired by the local Israelis that we were always treated to free meals in restaurants and free haircuts at the barber shop.”
Joe recalled the strains of those early days of the war. One morning the legendary Moshe Dayan came striding into Airforce O.C. Aharon Remez’s office demanding to know why the Air Force was “sitting on its arse.” He had reason to be angered; Israeli units were being hard pressed at several points by the invading Arab armies. However, the men on the ground had little understanding of the war in the air and “how the bombs thrown out could as easily fall among the Israeli men on the ground as among the enemy.”
Joe recorded an experience when the Israeli forces were pinned down along the “Burma Road” to Jerusalem and a Palmach unit was surrounded and radioed in for support. “We had to drop by parachute, two Piat guns and two bags of ammunition.” Complicating the mission, “we had no wind intelligence and no calculation of drift allowance and a real danger of the Piat and the ammo falling into enemy hands.”
With the door of the Rapide removed, there was only the metal handle on the side with the ammo bags tied to the handle until ready for the push. Joe used his feet against the banking of the plane. Then, “a mysterious thing” happened over at the 4th attempt of the drop. The metal handle broke and Joe would have gone hurling into space with the bag had not the pilot, Elliot Rosenberg, at that precise moment tilted to port. “The mystery is that from the cockpit, Elliot could not see me and had no logical reason to tilt. Some mysterious instinct came into play that ensured that Joe’s passing was delayed by over seven decades – “How did Eliot know something was wrong, we spoke about it for years afterwards.”
Close shaves were Joe’s calling card, even when not in the air. On one occasion during a UN brokered truce, Joe had an unsettling encounter with Count Folke Bernadotte, the UN Security Council mediator, known to be most unsympathetic to the new State of Israel.
“We had just landed with supplies at Sdom in the Negev desert, and who surprisingly was there was Bernadette who came up to me and asked what supplies we had brought.” Only knowing a few Hebrew words, Joe said:
“Ani medaber rak ivrit” (I only speak Hebrew)
Bernadette tried German.
“Rak Ivrit,” Joe repeated.
This went on until Bernadotte was distracted, never discovering that among the crates of carrots were hand grenades, certainly a violation of the truce agreement, “but this was a fight for survival.”
In truth it was.
The Machalniks’ contribution represents one of the proudest chapters in modern Jewish history, when ordinary people – like Joe Leibowitz and the over 800 Southern African volunteers – behaved quite extraordinarily. As Israel’s first Prime Minister Ben-Gurion said:
“This was a war not won by heroes. It was won by ordinary men and women rising above themselves.”
Above and Beyond. Short clip of volunteer fighter pilots in Israel’s War of Independence.
SA Rugby Legend Wilf Rosenberg Passes Away In Israel
By David E. Kaplan
January 14th 2019 saw the passing of a legend Wilf Rosenberg at age 84 at Beth Protea, the retirement home for South Africans in Herzliya Israel.
It was only six months ago that I enjoyed a good laugh with this illustrious Jewish Hall of Famer when following a string of recent defeats by the South African ‘Springboks’, I suggested “they should recall you to the squad!”
The octogenarian, who immigrated to Israel in 2009, replied:
“Yes they should; they have nothing to lose.”
Considered one of the greatest South African rugby players of all time, Wilf was dubbed “the flying dentist,” because of the way this periodontist would fearlessly hurl himself over the try line. The son of a rabbi, he first made it big with the South African Springboks and later with the Leeds Rugby League Club where in 1960-61 he broke the single season scoring record with 48 tries – a record that still stands nearly five decades later!
The other record that still stands is that Wilf is the only Jew to have ever played Rugby League.
“Jewish people came out in droves to see me, a Jewish boy, playing rugby league. It was wonderful,” recalled Wilf.
This Jewish rarity on the English playing fields was not the case in South Africa where there have been ten Jewish rugby Springboks, amusingly referred to as the “Minyan” (the male quorum required for Jewish communal worship):
Morris Zimmerman, Louis Bradlow, Fred Smollan, Dr. Cecil Moss, Prof. Alan Menter, Joseph ‘Joe’ Kaminer, Ockey Geffin, Syd Nomis, Dr. Wilf Rosenberg and Joel Stransky.
So how did it happen that Wilf emerged an all-time rugby great that earned him an induction into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1994?
No Stopping Rosenberg
Born in Sea Point, Cape Town in 1934, Wilf spent his childhood in Australia where his father Phillip was the Chief Rabbi. It was there where he began to play rugby at the age of six and was quickly singled out as “an exceptional talent”. In my interview in 2012 with Wilf at Beth Protea, he recalled every last detail, how his coach at the Sydney Grammar School asked Ron Rankin, a decorated WWII airman and a fullback for the Wallabies, to visit the school and assess the best players. “Pointing to me – and I was 13 at the time – Rankin said, “Look after the boy. He will play for Australia”.”
That prophesy would never “play” out as Rabbi Rosenberg moved his family back to South Africa despite a “very upset” Sydney Grammar offering “to put me in a boarding school. My mother was adamant, ‘No way, my son comes with me‘.”
Returning to South Africa, the Rosenberg males were making a name for themselves in Jeppe, the father as the new rabbi and the son at Jeppe High School where he developed his “three-quarter play”. Soon Wilf played for his province, Transvaal, at under-19 and then senior level.
“We had a great schoolboy back line,” he recalled. “Playing centre, I’d swing away outside my opponent, then, when I got the ball I’d dummy the full back and be away. Opponents used to shout, ‘Stop Rosenberg‘.”
Literally, there was no stopping Rosenberg.
His big break came in 1955, when the legendary Danie Craven took a fateful decision and: Wilf was well on his way!
Don’t Cross Craven
A stellar player, coach, administrator and one of the most influential figures in the history of the sport, Dr. Danie Craven believed that South Africa would not win a test series without a Jew in the side. “He not onlybelieved this passionately” said Wilf, but “put it to the test with me during the British Lions tour of South Africa in 1955,” the first Lion’s after the Second World War.
Following defeat by one point in the first test at Johannesburg by what rugby history buffs consider to be the best ever Lions team to visit South Africa with the likes of Cliff Morgan, Geoff Butterfield and Phil Davies – the ‘Boks’ needed to change things around. At the selectors meeting for the 2nd test, “Craven threatened to resign if they did not pick me.”
While Wilf at seventeen had been the youngest player in the Transvaal squad, “I was largely unknown, but they knew Craven and went with his instincts.”
It paid off.
“We beat them 25-8 at Newlands,” with Wilf scoring, as the newspapers at the time described – “a stunning 50 yard try.”
Scoring on his Springbok début, it was also noted in talk and print at the time, that “Wilf won the hearts of the segregated black spectators” who cheered him wildly when he ran out to play. Was it because he was a Jew, whose people like them had endured insufferable prejudice? Who knows? Wilf responded by directing his waving at the segregated section of the stadium making as well his début statement against Apartheid. He would later cherish his meeting with Nelson Mandela when ‘Madiba’ ascended from prison to president. “He invited me to his house for tea and we spoke about his days on Robben Island where he spent 27 years in exile.”
But here was the irony that did not escape Wilf who at the time was also promoting boxing in South Africa, a sport Mandela excelled in as a youth.
“Mandela was a mad keen boxing fan,” Wilf related and “we always had ringside seats for him and his staff.”
This was a far cry from when Wilf made his début for the Springboks in 1955 in Newlands and there were no preferential but segregated seats for South Africa’s Black majority. Acknowledging this inequality, Wilf waved to those who were honouring him.
“I think about my début often,” recalling how ecstatic fans jumped the fence when he scored before being restrained by police.
With the game only five minutes old:
“I sensed their strategy – to target me, the smallest guy on the field.”
As if it was yesterday, Wilf recalled in minute detail how Davies, a giant of a man, “called for the ball and set off. I took off and hit him. Bang! The crowd erupted.” The plan was “to keep it from the backs and attack in the second half. I cut right through the Lions back line for my try. Fans still say it’s one of the best they’ve seen.”
The Springboks won 25-9 and at full time, the Lions lined up and started clapping. “I wondered why and then the Springboks stepped back and clapped. It was for me.”
By the Grace of god
And so began Rosenberg’s career as one of South Africa’s most beloved players, where he dazzled the crowds with his speed, fearlessness and signature stunts. With his head thrown back, he would outsmart his opponents with a “dummy” – a fake pass – by cutting through the backline and then diving over the try line to score. “It looked as if I was diving into nothing,” said Rosenberg, who was now well on his speedy way to earning the sobriquet – “The flying dentist.”
So how did the son of a rabbi (Jeppe synagogue) end up being allowed to play on Shabbat (Sabbath)?
The rabbi had a smart answer:
“My son is born with a G-d given talent. Who am I to argue with G-d.”
This rationale proved reminiscent of a test-winning decision by the great Louis Babrow during the victorious 1937 Springbok tour in New Zealand. The final test fell on Yom Kippur but Babrow decided to play, arguing that, with the time difference, he would have played the match before the Day of Atonement dawned in South Africa.
He displayed the same cerebral maneuverability as he did physically on the field!
Twice inducted into the Jewish Hall of Fame at Wingate, Wilf’s Springbok jersey, socks and boots are there on display. It was a proud moment when “I led the SA delegation, carrying the flag in the 1997 Maccabi Games.”
Wilf might have participated in the 1957 Maccabi Games had he been allowed to join Nachal (Fighting Pioneer Youth in Israel) in 1956. “Craven would not hear of it, insisting I could not let South Africa down with the upcoming 1956 tour to New Zealand.”
Taking on the All Blacks was “manageable” compared to “taking on Danie Craven; that was bordering on suicide – he nearly exploded when I suggested it.”
‘Tackling’ the Past
It was Wilf’s father, the rabbi, who clinched the deal for Wilf to go professional.
While on honeymoon in Durban with his first wife, Elinor, he received a telegram from “my Dad that read ‘Pack your bags. I’ve signed you up for Leeds’.” It transpired that while on a visit to England, agents for Leeds surprised Rabbi Rosenberg at the airport and offered his son an astounding ₤6,000 to sign with them – an offer Rabbi Rosenberg could not refuse.
“I knew about rugby league growing up in Australia, but I never had any dreams of playing the game until my father made it a fait accompli,” revealed Wilf.
Adding to the allure was the fact that Rosenberg would be the only Jew to play rugby league – a distinction that holds to this day.
“A Jew playing rugby league? Unheard of!” said Rosenberg.
While playing rugby league, Wilf was also in dental school, earning the highest marks and specializing in periodontics. As he remembered it, “I lived a very fast life, juggling my dental practice with rugby and a growing family.”
To the day of his passing, Wilf remains fondly remembered with fans recalling matches well over half a century ago as if they were yesterday.
Writes Hull FC Pete Allen a club that Wilf had played for as well: “He was my first real hero. I was eleven when he signed for the club and it was at the time when the great team of the 1950s had all-but fizzled out. It was a tough time for the club. He made his debut against Bramley and scored twice, featuring the amazing dive he did in the corner. From that day onwards, he’s been a lifelong hero of mine. He’d take off two or three yards away from the line and dive horizontally over. There were always a bunch of photographers hoping to catch one of his famous dives. It was his trademark.”
Another describing Wilf’s inimitable talent is Len Lillford who recalls as a schoolboy watching Wilf in a game against Huddersfield. “He ran along the right wing and just had their fullback, Frank Dyson, to beat. Wilf lobbed the ball over the fullback’s head and ran round him and caught the ball to score under the posts. This was one of the best tries I had ever seen.”
Lawyer Charles Abelsohn of Kfar Saba, Israel, who played rugby at Stellenbosch University and later refereed rugby in Israel, describes his meeting with Wilf at Beth Protea in 2014, as “the second time in history.” Their first “meeting” was “when I was 11 years old sitting in the stands at Newlands watching with my Dad that famous 1955 Springboks match against the British Lions.”
“Yes, that was when Craven took a chance with me,” said Wilf.
“No, it was not a chance; Craven recognised talent and you proved him 100% right,” said Charles.
Wilf’s glory days at Leeds was well recalled by Derek Hallas who said:
“Wilf was such a nice guy and the best winger I played with. For a man of his size, he was one of the bravest players I have played with and he was a terrific finisher.”
Small in stature, Wilf was a giant of a man on the field. “One of the bravest players” and “a terrific finisher”, Wilf crossed the line of his life at 84 remembered fondly by fans all over the world.
The saying “It’s not the number of years in your life but the life in the number of your years,” resonates in describing the relatively short but extraordinary lives of three members of one heroic Israeli family – Ilan Ramon, son Asaf Ramon and today’s sad news, wife and mother – Rona Ramon.
By David E. Kaplan
“He has never left us – his spirit, his values and his message to future generations lives on for all time,” said Rona Ramon in an interview with this writer in 2014 about her late Israeli astronaut husband, Ilan Ramon, who died in the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster in 2003. She could so easily as well be referring to her beloved son Asaf Ramon, who followed in his father’s footsteps becoming a pilot and was tragically killed in an Air Force training accident in 2009.
And sadly, as the news broke that Rona too, was taken before her time – passing away at age 54 from cancer – the Jewish world can say about Rona, “her spirit, her values, and her message to future generations lives on for all time.”
In the years following the tragic passing of her husband and son, Rona showed the same bravery, determination and grit as she spearheaded the perpetuation of the family legacy through the Ramon Foundation.
A life characterized by triumph and tragedy, the writer sat down with Rona Ramon for an exclusive interview for a major magazine in Israel.
Colonel (Aluf Mishne) Ilan Ramon perished at the age of 48 when the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated on its re-entry into earth, killing all seven astronauts on board. An ace Israel fighter pilot, in 1981 Ramon was the youngest – participating in Operation Opera, Israel’s impressive strike against Iraq’s near-completed and threatening nuclear reactor in Osirak.
A global icon, Ramon is the only foreign recipient of the United States Congressional Space Medal of Honor which he was awarded posthumously in 2004.
With Israelis enjoying a love affair with the Ramon family – the surname embedded in the minds of most – my first question opened with their ‘love affair’.
How did you and Ilan meet?
“We met on my 22nd birthday party at a friend’s house in Kiryat Ono. My friend’s eldest sister invited her neighbor – this 32-year-old good looking guy with a million-dollar smile – and to this day I always say, “Ilan was my 22-birthday present.”
Six months later they were married.
“Why wait, we were in love,” the couple thought at the time, and nine years later with their four children, they were living in a suburb close to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. All this would come to a crashing, cataclysmic end as billions of people stared in disbelief at their television sets as the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated in flame as it reentered the earths atmosphere.
This nation was unprepared.
It was just not possible!
After 16 days of almost constant news coverage about “our Ilan’s” exploits in space – from how he spent Shabbat (Sabbath), the various experiments he was conducting in space and what special mementos he took with him such as a prayer book to recite the Kiddush (blessing) as well as a Kiddush cup, a picture drawn by a 14 year-old boy who perished in Auschwitz and a Torah scroll that survived the Holocaust – Israelis felt they knew him personally.
He was family!
As one newspaper at the time expressed it:
“He represented us all – our country, our people, our past and our future. He was our hero at a time when we sorely needed one.”
The son of Holocaust survivors, he represented a nation’s rebirth – the young, proud modern Israeli rising from the ashes of the Shoah (Holocaust) to a child of a new nation, reborn in its ancestral homeland and who in one generation was seeking answers to earth’s problems in the heavens.
How perceptive and prophetic were Ilan’s words from space:
“The world looks marvelous from up here, so peaceful, so wonderful and so fragile.”
From a prolonged high to a sudden low, how did Rona cope?
“Before finding answers, I had to understand the questions. I felt such conflicting emotions to a situation I was unprepared. I was not only dealing with a profound personal loss but a national loss, so while having to keep my young family together, I also could not forsake my national responsibilities and obligations all under the international spotlight.”
Hard for anyone to be prepared, how did you find the strength?
“My family – my wonderful kids who brought me to a place that I found I was not afraid and I found the strength to shift from thinker to doer.
Did it make it easier or more difficult that all Israel shared in your grief?
“It added to the huge weight on my shoulders as I was representing Israel not only symbolically but physically. I was compelled to channel my grief through action. I had to present myself before several investigation committees relating to the accident; addressed conferences and attended commemorative ceremonies, such as accepting from President Bush in 2004 the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. Ilan is the only non-American to have ever received this prestigious award.”
Was it stressful taking on all these responsibilities?
“Actually the exposure to so many people and situations gave me strength, and after returning to Israel from the USA, I found solace in returning to academia. I took my Masters in Holistic Studies through Lesley University, Boston. My thesis dealt with how personal loss impacts on our lives – physically, emotionally, spiritually and cognitively. Through my studies, I navigated my return journey home to normalcy.”
Trying Times To Ramon Foundation
If losing her celebrated husband was not enough, Rona would be tragically tested once more. In June 2009, President Shimon Peres had awarded Captain Asaf Ramon his air force wings at Hatzerim base in southern Israel. The President had been close to the Ramon family and it was Peres who has encouraged President Clinton to include an Israeli astronaut in a future NASA space mission. “Peres felt at the time,” said Rona, “that the country needed a boost; that there had been much division in the society following the Rabin assassination and that an Israeli traveling in space would unite the nation like no other event.” This proved correct. The nation did unite around this spectacular venture.
Inspired by his father, Asaf had excelled in his training and had expressed the hope that he, too, would one day become an astronaut.
It was not to be.
On the 13th September 2009 Captain Asaf Ramon, age 21, was tragically killed when his F16-A jet crashed during a routine training exercise.
The way Rona dealt with this further blow was to channel all her energies in founding the ‘Ramon Foundation’ which would honor both her husband and her son.
“The foundation,” said Rona, “promotes and initiates projects that can influence our society for the better. We focus on the field most associated with the Ramon name – space and science, as we view these fields best to inspire children and young people to dream, to pursue, and to make their dreams a reality. Just like his father, Asaf fulfilled his dream of becoming a fighter pilot, and just like his dad, he graduated from the flying academy with honors.”
Rona quotes from both Ilan and Asaf, whose writings from their diaries were the inspiration for her founding the Ramon Foundation. Ilan wrote: “The children and youth are the future of the development and advances in space research, especially since they are open to new creative ideas and not prisoners to old ways and therefore so important to our future in space.” And following his graduation, Asaf wrote: “My siblings and I were lucky to grow up with parents who helped us to fulfill our dreams and reach our unique potential.”
Rona says she was “humbled and moved reading this,” and took this short appreciative passage of Asafs’ as her Magna Carta in founding the Ramon Foundation.
So what are some of the programs?
“We have many and use the world of space and aviation, associated with Ilan and Asaf, to encourage personal excellence and community involvement. We support groundbreaking excellence in academic achievement among Israeli youth and promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education involving scientists, pilots and young leaders, all determined to make these goals a reality.”
Do you work with schools?
“Yes, we are working with 20 schools all over the country and including all the communities – Jews, Arabs, Druze and Bedouin. We look beyond ethnicity to enthusiasm. All who want to excel are welcome. So for example in our elementary schools, we have set up Aviators Clubs where squadrons from the Israeli Air Force adopt a school and where the students are inspired by the pilots who serve as role models.
We have witnessed trouble-makers transform into outstanding students. All they wanted was to excel and we provide the tools and the inspiration to follow their dreams. The pilots inspire the children to strive for excellence and be better students, citizens and leaders of their society.”
Projects Out Of This World
For the older students, I understand you have a program called the Ramon Space Labs. Can you explain the program?
“Imagine the excitement of a school kid knowing that an experiment he is working on will be tested by a real astronaut onboard an International Space Station (ISS)! There are currently 100 students in four schools who are planning an experiment soon to be launched, while some have already watched their experiment launched into orbit. Basically, students design and build an experiment to be performed on the International Space Station. They watch it then being launched into space, performed by the astronauts on the ISS and then on the return to earth, the results are analyzed and published.”
Rona was also working with the Conrad Foundation, named after the late Apollo 12 astronaut, Charles “Pete” Conrad, who had struggled academically due to dyslexia and only because of a perceptive headmaster, saw Pete’s spark of genius and gave him the confidence he needed. He went on to earn a scholarship to Princeton University and in November 1969, Pete became the third man to walk on the Moon.
We too are looking for that ‘spark of genius’ in our Israeli students and this year, twelve of our schools are participating in the Conrad Foundation’s
‘Spirit of Innovation Challenge’ which invites high school students from all over the world to its annual competition.
Using science, technology, engineering and math skills, teams develop innovative products to help solve global and local problems while supporting global sustainability. We are sending our best students to represent our country and hope to reach the semi-finals. The finals, where the participants will present their products and vie for seed grants, patent support and commercial opportunities will be held as a space camp in Houston.”
Can you foresee future Israeli astronauts like Ilan?
“We need to equip the dreamers to emerge as doers. Everyone has their own calling. I have a son who is a talented musician composing his own material. Our foundation helps young people identify their talents and explores ways for them to reach their full potential. We are offering opportunities to kids which would not otherwise have them. However, as our young participants grow older, we zone in on those who have the potential to make a global impact.
For such individuals we have a program called ‘Ramon Breakthrough’. This program is open to those who can through innovative technology, improve the lives of one million people in Israel. The prize is a scholarship to Singularity University in California where the student will together with other students from around the world will explore solutions aimed at solving some of the world’s most pressing challenges.”
It would seem you are busy now than ever before?
“Well, from losing members of my family, I feel the Ramon family is expanding as we are touching the lives of so many kids. Today, I have a large family.”
There are parks, sixteen streets alone in Israel, museums, schools, playgrounds, departments at hospitals, soon the renaming of the airport in Eilat and even an asteroid named after Ilan Ramon. How special for you is the new Ramon Museum at Mitzpe Ramon?
“When the government decided to honor Ilan with a national memorial, I pressed for the focus to be less about a memorial and more about education. I also felt that Mitzpe Ramon would be the ideal location. The crater has a surreal space quality about it and on the personal level – Ilan was a child of the Negev having grown up in the desert’s capital, Beersheva. With the crater below and the space above, the museum’s exhibits project both the heaven and earth.”
Rona’s Proudest Moment
After the first anniversary of her husband’s death, Rona received the program of the first anniversary ceremony of the Columbia tragedy to be held at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia. She saw that it did not include the Hatikvah – the national anthem of Israel – so she called her friend at NASA who explained to Rona that the protocol at such ceremonies allows only for the American national anthem.
“In which case, I will not be attending,” Rona replied.
There was silence at the other end of the phone “and my friend replied he would call back. It apparently went all the way to President Bush who approved. It was the first time a foreign national anthem had ever been played on such an occasion. I felt truly proud when I stood at Arlington Cemetery listening to Hatikva.
The personal legacy of Ilan for me is his wonderful smile. I suspect wherever he was that day looking upon me having stood my ground defiantly, he was smiling.”
On behalf of a mourning nation, Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin said today, “Rona Ramon left us as she lived among us – noble, pure, full of faith.”
Rona joins her husband and son but leaves a legacy that will forever enrich the lives Israelis today, tomorrow and into the far future.