Backstory is a CJN column recalling some of the most bizarre, unique, and important moments in Jewish history. Click here for last week’s instalment.
The new Iranian threat to “wipe out” Israel coincides with the 35th anniversary of the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.
Faced with a nuclear threat from then-Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein, Israel resolved to eliminate Osirak, a French-built, Baghdad-based reactor producing weapons-grade plutonium. The reactor formed the heart of a huge nuclear plant situated 19 kilometres from Baghdad, 1,600 kilometres from Tel Aviv.
By 1981, Osirak was on the verge of becoming “hot,” and prime minister Menachem Begin and his closest colleagues in the Israeli cabinet, including Ariel Sharon, knew they would have to confront its deadly potential or face another Holocaust. Accordingly, Begin turned to Israeli Air Force (IAF) commander David Ivry to secretly plan a daring surgical strike on the reactor.
The first pilot Ivry called to headquarters was Wing Commander Zeev Raz, a 32-year-old lieutenant-colonel and father of four, affectionately known as “Zeevi” by his pilots. Raz had dreamed of flying ever since he was a small boy living on Kibbutz Giva in the Jezreel Valley.
He had received a telescope as a bar mitzvah present, and, as the guests danced and celebrated his ascension to manhood, Raz sneaked out to the backyard and used his telescope to watch a squadron of French Mirages land at the air force base just half a mile from his home. They seemed so beautiful and graceful. He thought that it would be wonderful to soar far above the earth, free of its cares and problems.
He joined the IAF in 1967, flew a Phantom F4 during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and in 1977, attended the U.S. Navy School of Air Combat in San Diego, Calif., made famous by the film Top Gun. In 1980, Raz established the first F16 squadron in the IAF. He was its first commander. In 1981, he led the successful raid on the Iraqi nuclear reactor.
I had the privilege of having dinner with Wing Commander Zeev Raz and his charming wife in Montreal in 2005. He told me one of the most riveting stories I had ever heard.
After the raid on Osirak was completed, his planes climbed to higher altitudes where headwinds were weak, in order to save fuel on the return trip to Israel. But at that altitude, F16s would leave behind contrails, making it easier for the hostile Iraqi, Saudi and Jordanian air forces to identify the Israeli squadron. At lower altitudes, however, there was the constant danger of running into MiGs, and having to deal with dog fights or air-to-air missiles would consume precious fuel.
If shot down, he might not survive; if captured, he would be mercilessly tortured. He was beyond the range of rescue helicopters, and the escorting F15s would not be able to help. Air-to-air refuelling was not an option. In the event of a crash, he had no place to hide in the open and brutal desert ablaze under a blistering sun. Hostile search forces would fall on him like vultures. He was facing real life and death issues.
Although not a religious man, in that moment his thoughts turned to God and to his family. If only he would receive a sign. And then he realized that as he was flying west at almost 2,000 kilometres and hour in the late afternoon, the sun was standing still for him – just as it had done for Joshua!
There was a perfectly rational explanation for what transpired before him, but under the circumstances, he took it for the sign he was hoping to receive. In that instant, he knew he would make it safely home. And when his landing gear hit the soil of Israel, he said a brief prayer of gratitude, for the first time in many years. For he felt in his soul that “it was as if the hand of God was guarding our path.”
The story reminded me of prophet Habakkuk’s dream: “Sun and moon stood still in the heavens at the glint of your flying arrows, at the lightning of your flashing spear.”