Grapevine June 4, 2023: Remembering Ilan Ramon

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 ILAN RAMON, the first Israeli astronaut, during training at the NASA space center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2002. (photo credit: NASA)
ILAN RAMON, the first Israeli astronaut, during training at the NASA space center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2002.
(photo credit: NASA)

The year 2023 is a significant one for anniversaries, both happy and sad. In the latter category, 2023 marks the 20th anniversary year of the disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia as it re-entered Earth in February 2003. On board was former fighter pilot Ilan Ramon, who was Israel’s first astronaut.

He was killed with six other crew members and was posthumously awarded the US Congressional Space Medal of Honor, of which he was the only foreign recipient.

Two months after the explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia, fragments of Ramon’s diary were found in Palestine, Texas, and given to his wife, Rona, who sought the help of forensic experts at the Israel Museum, who did whatever they could to reassemble it, after which it was transferred to Sharon Brown, a forensic scientist who was then head of the Forensic Department of the Israel Police, who was able to visualize and reassemble erased sections, and thus salvage some of Ramon’s last thoughts and impressions. 

Brown will speak about her work on the diary and what it meant to her, at a Nechama-Tamar Chapter of Hadassah event to be held on Monday, June 5, at 7 p.m. at Moreshet Avraham, 22 Adam St., East Talpiot, Jerusalem. Participants are asked to donate a minimum of NIS 50 each (NIS 20 for students), from which proceeds will go to ongoing research by Hadassah hospital researchers into early detection and treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease.

■ MORE OR less coinciding with an announcement last week by Foreign Minister Eli Cohen that Hungary will be the first EU country to open an embassy in Jerusalem, is the visit to Israel this week by Dr. Andor Grosz, president of the Federation of Jewish communities of Hungary, and vice president for Hungary at the World Jewish Congress.

HE WAS very close with the late Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut. (credit: NASA)
HE WAS very close with the late Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut. (credit: NASA)

The product of a traditional Jewish family, he studied aviation medicine and later served in various medical military positions in the Hungarian Defence Forces. In 2000, he was a founding member of the Department of Aviation and Space Medicine at the University of Szeged. He currently serves as an ophthalmologist at the Mazsihisz Charity Hospital, and since 2015, has chaired the Board of Trustees of the Holocaust Documentation Center and Memorial Collection Public Foundation. In 1990, Grosz was elected president of the Jewish community of Kecskemét, and since then has been a member of the Mazsihisz General Assembly.

A widower, and the father of two daughters, Grosz is also involved with Jewish education. His younger daughter attends a Jewish school and his older daughter is working at the Institute of Military History. It’s difficult to tell how many Jews there are in Hungary because so many of them are unaffiliated. Estimates vary from 120,000 to 47,500. But there is organized Jewish life in Hungary. Though largely assimilated before the Second World War, Hungarian Jews did not deny their origins. Their numbers were far greater before the war than after. Approximately 565,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered by the Nazis.

Apropos the opening of an embassy, it does not exactly come as a surprise. Hungary opened a trade office in Jerusalem in 2019. In 2021, the question was posed in this column as to whether Hungary would be the first EU country to open an embassy in Jerusalem. The question derived from remarks made by Hungarian Ambassador Levente Benko when he hosted a Hungarian National Day reception in Jerusalem, marking the anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, which was a nationalist uprising against Soviet control of Hungary. Benko had stated that Jerusalem should be the city in which to hold the annual reception commemorating Hungary’s historic step towards regaining its independence. Although this was the first time that such a reception was held in Jerusalem, he said, it would not be the last time.

■ ALSO DUE to arrive in Israel this week is OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, who is one of America’s key figures in artificial intelligence. Altman received his first computer when he was eight, and he’s been involved with computer technology ever since. During his visit he is expected to meet with President Isaac Herzog, and he will also take a close look at Microsoft’s R&D Center, which is a major investor in OpenAI. He will also meet with leading figures in Israel’s hi-tech industry and will visit Tel Aviv University.

The Netanyahu family

■ MEDIA REPORTS last week indicated that Sara Netanyahu, the wife of the prime minister, is unhappy with the level of security that she and her husband are receiving. Now that the private Netanyahu residence in Jerusalem has become the official residence of the prime minister, the lady reportedly thinks that the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) is not doing enough to ensure the safety of members of the Netanyahu family. Be that as it may, the question arises as to what is the future of the former official residence of the prime minister. 

During the period in which Benjamin Netanyahu headed the Knesset opposition, a lot of work was done on the premises, and part of the interior was gutted. Given the speed at which high-rise projects are going up and being completed in Jerusalem, there is no excuse for the official residence of the prime minister to remain uninhabitable. There was plenty of time to change all the plumbing, to upgrade all the security factors and to renovate the whole interior including a new kitchen and bathrooms. 

But for months now, no work has been done on the building, which was previously the official residence of the foreign minister. When Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister the first time around, his wife refused to live in the residence vacated by Golda Meir because it required so many improvements. But that was half a century ago. In the interim, the house that Golda had lived in fell into terrible neglect and became a place of refuge for homeless alcoholics and drug addicts. Several years ago, the premises were made available to the late Miriam Eshkol for the purpose of creating a memorial facility honoring her late husband prime minister Levi Eshkol. The house was cleaned up, restored and furnished with a lot of Eshkol memorabilia. It is now known as Eshkol House, and has been open to the public since 2016.

Although it is only a hop, skip and jump from his private residence, it is extremely doubtful that Netanyahu will return to his former official abode. If that is the case, perhaps all the security booths, metal gates and impediments to motorists could be removed from Balfour and Smolenskin streets, so that pedestrians and motorists can move with greater comfort.

In addition, the large house next door, which was originally the Schocken residence, then the Rubin Music Academy and subsequently the Shuvu School, has been only semi-occupied for years and was used by Netanyahu’s security detail. It too has fallen into severe neglect in a neighborhood reputed to be upper-middle class. Although there is an impressive Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, perhaps the two adjacent buildings should be turned into a Jerusalem monument to Rabin, who was born in the capital, defended Jerusalem during the War of Independence, was chief of staff when Jerusalem was reunited in 1967 and twice moved into the prime minister’s residence. The first time was in 1974 and the second in 1992. He deserves to be memorialized in Jerusalem, where he also has his final resting place on Mount Herzl.

■ AUSTRALIA HAS a long history of involvement with the Land of Israel and the State of Israel. Australian and New Zealand soldiers, known as ANZACs, helped to bring about the Balfour Declaration when they defeated Ottoman forces in the October 1917 Battle of Beersheba. Since then, both Australia and Israel established diplomatic relations with Turkey, proving that enemies can become allies and even friends.

In Australia itself, in recent weeks, there have been several events celebrating Israel’s 75th anniversary of independence, most notably in Melbourne, in the State of Victoria, whose Jewish community is arguably one of the most Zionist-oriented on the planet, running the full gamut from secular to ultra-Orthodox Zionism. 

But no less important is the fact that although there may be disagreement among political parties as to recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, there has always been and continues to be bipartisan support for Israel.

When president Chaim Herzog visited Australia in 1986, the Federal Parliament in Canberra passed a bipartisan resolution affirming Israel’s right to live in peace and security. Similar support has since been given on other occasions both at state and federal levels, including this year.

In Victoria, both Premier Daniel Andrews and opposition leader John Pesutto joined in the Independence Day celebration co-hosted by Zionism Victoria, the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, the Zionist Federation of Australia and the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, and spoke of Israel in the most glowing terms.

Zionist Federation of Australia President Jeremy Leibler said, “75 years ago, Doc Evatt, Australia’s ambassador to the UN, cast the first vote in favor of the Partition Plan, and later, as the UN’s president, advocated for Israel’s admission as a member state. The enduring and bipartisan support for Israel exhibited by Australian political leaders since that time holds immense significance for the Jewish community. The Victorian Jewish community is profoundly appreciative of state and federal political leaders, who not only demonstrate genuine friendship towards the Jewish community, but also wholeheartedly embrace and celebrate our community’s values.”

Incidentally, nearly all Australian prime ministers from Robert Menzies onwards have visited Israel either when in office or after leaving office – some of them more than once.