The Columbia represented for Israelis an almost mystical entwining of its destiny with the U.S. Not even after a terrorist attack do Israelis allow themselves to grieve so openly as they have for Ilan Ramon, the Israeli air force colonel lost on the space shuttle Columbia.

The day after the disaster, cafes were empty, and friends called each other to weep. Perhaps it’s because, for a brief moment, Ramon released this country from its despair of ever finding peace and transported Israelis into a world of endless possibility. When the Columbia crashed, our dare against fate seemed to end, too.

Beyond national pride, the joint voyage into space represented for Israelis an almost mystical entwining of both Israel and the United States’ destinies. “It’s a sign from God about our common fate,” a secular friend said to me. Several Israeli newspaper columnists noted that Ramon, one of the Israeli pilots who destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, was included on an American space shuttle just as Washington prepares for war against Saddam Hussein.

Though Israel is barely the size of New Jersey, the two nations share common values and mythic origins. Both were founded by immigrants inspired by biblical humanism. Both are societies whose diversity is a microcosm of humanity. Israel is one of the few countries where America is still regarded without cynicism as the world’s great defender of freedom. And Americans appreciate Israel as a laboratory for testing the durability of democracy under duress.

Israelis love America. On Independence Day, some motorists fly the Israeli and American flags. And although a U.S. attack could make us the first target of Saddam’s revenge, most Israelis back the war. For Israelis, U.S. support represents far more than foreign aid. It is proof that Jews aren’t fated to once again become a pariah people. Israelis were especially grateful that Ramon was included in the shuttle crew at a time when the Jewish state has been widely demonized for defending itself against terrorism.

Perhaps the ultimate moment in U.S.-Israeli relations occurred on July 4, 1976. Just as America began celebrating its 200th anniversary, Israeli commandos flew hundreds of miles across hostile territory and rescued a hundred Jews hijacked by Palestinian terrorists at Uganda’s Entebbe airport. The rescue became an instant legend and was celebrated by Americans as a fulfillment of the spirit of 1776.

Some malevolent observers, particularly in the Arab world, attribute America’s support for Israel to a “Zionist conspiracy.” The pro-Israel lobby is one of Washington’s most powerful, but it would never have been successful had Americans not recognized in Israel a reflection of themselves.

Ramon, the son of Holocaust survivors, brought to the Columbia a drawing of planet Earth made by a child who died in Auschwitz. That symbolic gesture was particularly apt, given the central role the Holocaust has played in stirring American sympathy for Israel. It is no coincidence that the first country outside of Israel to dedicate an official Holocaust museum was the United States. Ramon’s presence on the Columbia, in turn, has imparted the gift of courage to America as it prepares to depose Saddam in defiance of much of the international community.

Ramon, after all, knew that there are times when unilateral action cannot be evaded. Israel’s destruction of the Iraqi reactor was vehemently condemned by most of the world as an act of piracy. Yet if not for Ramon and his friends, the tens of thousands of American soldiers now gathering in the Persian Gulf would be in grave danger of an Iraqi nuclear attack.

Before takeoff, Israelis were thrilled to see the Columbia crew pose against a backdrop of American and Israeli flags. Now they are comforted by seeing the two countries’ flags flying together at half-staff.

(Reprinted from USA Today)