The two sides of Israel - in space and on the ground

We shouldn’t have to look up in the atmosphere to find that light. We desperately need it here on the ground too.

ISRAEL’S LATEST astronaut, Eytan Stibbe, bumps elbows with President Reuven Rivlin at Monday’s ceremony at the President’s Residence. (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
ISRAEL’S LATEST astronaut, Eytan Stibbe, bumps elbows with President Reuven Rivlin at Monday’s ceremony at the President’s Residence.
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
The noontime radio news magazine on KAN hosted by Esty Perez Ben-Ami usually provides an insightful overview of the major events taking place in the country, including incisive commentary and sharp interviews with news-makers. It’s a microcosm of Israeli culture compressed into a stimulating one-hour aural mix.
Monday was no exception, when the program showcased stories that embodied both the best and worst of what Israel is today, reflecting how high we can soar and how low we can crawl.
One story focused on a four-month-old infant fighting for his life at Ashkelon’s Barzilai Medical Center, after being hospitalized in critical condition. His parents were detained by police on suspicion of physically abusing the boy.
As the child’s condition worsened, the parents were allowed to visit for what doctors said could be the last time. Soon after, they declared the baby brain dead, and within hours he died. According to the reports, the police have evidence from cellphone conversations and WhatsApp messages between the parents that confirm they had abused their baby.
In another shocking incident in the North of the country that unfolded during the radio broadcast, Rabiy’a Kna’ana, 40, from the Galilee village of Arrabe, crashed his car into his ex-wife’s vehicle in the center of town. Then in broad daylight, with bystanders in shock, he proceeded to stab her with a screwdriver all over her body before fleeing in his car.
The mother of five was killed on the spot, the 17th Israeli-Arab woman murdered in 2020, according to the Aman Center for Combating Violence in Arab Society. Her ex-husband was previously known to local welfare and law enforcement authorities as being abusive, and his ex-wife had asked for protection, but to no avail.
Horror... disbelief... and depression over what Israel has devolved into. Are we turning into a modern version of Sodom and Gomorrah, in which law and order are scorned, the rule of the street takes hold, and everlasting values that have guided us are wantonly disregarded and discarded?
Commentators and experts have noted that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the pressure cooker we cope with in normal times, resulting in more erratic and desperate behaviors that have boosted the number of violent incidents.
That may be partially true, but it feels more like a convenient fallback that provides no solace to the innocent victims, and fails to address the underlying problems that are plaguing Israeli society.
Now at a point of despair, I was about to change the station to some soothing music when the broadcast switched to a live feed from the President’s Residence, and a story that reaffirmed a higher ground that Israelis can still strive to reach.
President Reuven Rivlin was hosting a ceremony announcing that for just the second time in the country’s history, Israel will be sending an astronaut into space.
Eytan Stibbe, a former fighter pilot, is due to take off in late 2021 for a mission of just over a week on the International Space Station.
“This is a day of national joy and great pride,” said Rivlin. “An Israeli pilot with a blue-and-white flag embroidered on his shoulder will prove once again – as we have been showing here for 72 years – that even the sky isn’t our limit.”
THE 62-YEAR-OLD Stibbe spoke with warmth and grace about representing Israel in space, and the philosophical elements of the human condition.
“It takes much depth and strength to be able to release ourselves from that which ties us down, to leave gravity,” he said.
Space and Israel have a deep emotional relationship. In 2003, Ilan Ramon became the pride of the country when he was launched into the skies as a shuttle payload specialist on the STS-107 mission of Space Shuttle Columbia. Israelis then watched in horror as Ramon was killed along with the other six crew members when the shuttle blew up just 16 minutes before they were due to land back on Earth.
The Ramon saga continued to captivate the country, as Ramon’s widow, Rona, became a symbol of dignity and strength, and when Ramon’s son Assaf followed in his father’s footsteps in the Israel Air Force as a fighter pilot. His tragic death in an F-16 training crash only six years after his father’s demise only added to the family’s pain, and its legend.
Before her own untimely death in 2018, Rona Ramon established the Ramon Foundation, which helps Israeli children with academic excellence pursue their dreams.
The specter of the Ramon family dominated the proceedings at the President’s Residence. Eitan Stibbe was commanded by Ilan Ramon in the IAF, and was a close family friend who supported them during their tragedies.
When Tal Ramon, the family’s surviving son, spoke in an eloquent and compassionate tone, there were likely tears in the eyes of many in attendance and those listening live.
“I’m very excited because I know if my mother were standing here, she would put up her hands in victory like this, and speak very proudly about our friend, a friend I remember from my very first memories,” Tal said. The Stibbe family “escorted us through the years through everything we went through, the good and the bad, and their family has become our family.”
He then thanked Stibbe for making the sacrifice of devoting countless hours of his life to make a “contribution” to the citizens of Israel.
The people who spoke at the President’s Residence represented the best of what Israel has to offer: the desire and ability to make a difference in the world, to contribute – as Ramon said – and to expand the boundaries of what is possible.
It’s people like Stibbe and the Ramon family who have established an image through the decades of a certain type of Israeli known around the world: confident, big-hearted leaders with lofty ambitions and values, the kind of people who know how to take charge in emergencies, who volunteer in far-flung disasters, and who gives actual expression to the ideals of tikkun olam, repairing the world.
It’s the kind of Israeli that Diaspora Jews have idealized throughout the decades, and also one that the rest of the world looks up to. So it was reassuring to learn on Monday that this type of Israeli still exists, the one embodied by Eitan Stibbe and by the Ramons. It provides a crack in the darkness, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, that lets a sliver of light illuminate the Israel that represents the ideal of what this Zionist endeavor is all about.
But we shouldn’t have to look up in the atmosphere to find that light. We desperately need it here on the ground too.