“When kindergartners uniformly wish for Gilad Shalit’s release, not a toy, it is not a sign of a healthy society.”
By Gideon Levy

It was deserted on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, in the square in front of the statue of the roaring lion at Tel Hai. A first autumn wind was whipping and only one family, new immigrants from Russia, stood around the famous stone statue. Here is the symbol of the myth on which we were raised: “It’s good to die for our country.” This statue of the lion, erected in 1928, became a formative image in our childhood.

Quite a number of lions have roared since then, the country has become filled with monuments and slogans, and every last one of them deals with the death of heroes, with soldiers and with the army. The dernier cri on this subject: captive soldier Gilad Shalit – who has “replaced” captive navigator Ron Arad – and the dead pilot Asaf Ramon.

They are all deserving of praise and, primarily, of honest concern for their fate, but we have lost all proportion in relation to all of them. They are/were young people, private individuals, who were sent by the country to their deaths or to captivity. They did not necessarily excel in unique demonstrations of heroism; only cruel fate turned them into heroes in our eyes. And after fate was cruel to them, a state, government and media apparatus began to turn them into national heroes – without allowing them any say in the matter.

That is the way of the world. Nations invent heroes for themselves. Indeed, every nation is in need of a hero. Every one of the kindergartners in Binyamina asked last week to write their wishes on balloons, which they dispatched in honor of the New Year, wrote: “For Gilad Shalit to be released.” They asked not for peace or a new toy, not for success at school or good health for their parents, only for the return of Gilad Shalit. A uniform chorus such as this, at such a young age, is not an indication of a healthy society.

But if the national concern over the welfare of a captive soldier is understandable and even moving – even if it is not accompanied by the firm, vital demand for the release of prisoners in exchange for him, or by any word of compassion for the tens of thousands of Palestinians sitting in Israeli prisons – the events surrounding Asaf Ramon are an indication of a more profound malady. We do/did not know either Shalit or Ramon, and now they are our heroes. Why? Because of the cruel and random tragedy. From now on we know: Only the crash of a pilot who was the son of a pilot, or soldier falling into captivity, can still unite us and, particularly, spur us into any national action.

The newspaper editor’s face fell: His cell-phone screen showed an initial report about the crash of an Israel Air Force plane. It was suspected that the dead pilot was the son of the late astronaut Ilan Ramon. I, too, was shocked to hear the news, which broke in the afternoon. Until the evening, when Israeli television – mainly its two commercial channels – replaced all the regular programming with long, exhausting hours filled with empty slogans and endless, hollow discussions, all dealing exclusively with a random aerial accident.

Then the initial shock was replaced by a sense of suffocation. Compassion was replaced by pornography, a sense of mourning gave way to the ritual of death, which is the ritual of our lives. That is how a myth is constructed. That is how genuine human emotion is destroyed. Entire families have been killed in the past in terror attacks or traffic accidents. Asaf Ramon is not the first son to be killed in the wake of his father during his military service, but here the signal was given for us to engender the birth of a myth – and we all obeyed automatically.

He had all the essential ingredients for this: a dynasty of pilots, a father who was an astronaut and a record as an outstanding pilot. Both of the Ramons were killed in the line of duty, even if not in a raging battle. And a funeral in Nahalal – where, if not Nahalal? Salt of the earth, of course, salt of the earth. The fact that both father and son died in accidents made absolutely no difference when it came to the funeral: The entire leadership of the country was in attendance in Nahalal, including, believe it or not, the Americans’ special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell.

Dozens of newspaper columns were devoted solely to that fact. What should the members of bereaved families from other national disasters feel, those whose loved ones’ funerals were not attended by a single government representative? What would have happened had Ramon, Jr. been killed in a traffic accident, or if he hadn’t been a pilot? And how many times did you hear on that one day the expression “the air force family”?

President Shimon Peres, who has unparalleled experience in such things, hastened to exaggerate: “What has happened to us is more than an accident. It’s a disaster.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu soon followed, saying it was “a terrible tragedy for the Jewish people … The entire nation is enveloped in endless sorrow at the death of Asaf, who fell from the skies like his father Ilan.” Added Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi: “Asaf is gone because of values. To our regret, this is part of the price we pay for living in this beloved country.”

What is the connection between a pilot who was killed in an accident and “the price of living in this beloved country”? Only because of the mourning will we refrain from expanding here on the subject of the values of the IAF in recent years.

The teacher from Blich High School said that her former student had been “a man among men,” hastening to mention the Holocaust. Asaf was once moved by a Jew, she said, who told him to say “Am Yisrael Hai” (“The Jewish people live”) during a visit to a town in Poland. Minister of Education Gideon Sa’ar ordered that a lesson be devoted to Ramon in all the schools in the country. A lesson about what? About fulfilling a personal dream of being a pilot or an astronaut?

The principal of one of the schools named after Ilan Ramon – there are at least two – said that in his school, they teach the “Ramon legacy.” And what exactly is the “Ramon legacy”? Plus, a former IAF commander mentioned that the Ramons symbolized the country, which soars heavenward, although he forgot for a moment that they also crashed in the harsh and rocky ground, to everyone’s sorrow.

The collective demonstration of mourning lasted for two or three days, until the entire inventory of cliches was used up. That is how to unite the Jewish people, even if momentarily: Give them a worthy tragedy. That is how they spur their sons to act. In fact, the “Youth for Gilad Shalit” group is already planning a mass event next month: From the Kirya, Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, to the Kirya government compound in Jerusalem, there will be a “stretcher march” by 300 young people, under the slogan: “Don’t bury him alive.”

We should have sent off Asaf with grassroots mourning and sadness. His was indeed a terrible tragedy, a shocking coincidence – but not a national disaster. A public struggle for the release of Gilad Shalit certainly should be conducted, but neither stretcher marches nor ultra-light planes will free him – only a firm demand that the government make a courageous decision to release the hundreds of prisoners that Israel is being asked to free. Without that step, there will be no release of Shalit.

Pay attention to all these flyovers and marches and events: You will not see any simultaneous, focused and insistent demand to release prisoners in exchange for Shalit. That might be too controversial. After all, for that purpose, you need much more courage than is required for sending up balloons or kites. And that’s an even rarer commodity in an uncourageous society that regularly invents heroes for itself, real and imaginary.

Ha’aretz (Israeli Daily Newspaper), 26.09.09