One of Israel’s great heroes: Tamar Ariel

"We were so moved when we received the Defense Ministry announcement,” said Anat Ariel, the mother of Capt. Tamar Ariel.

CAPT. TAMAR ARIEL was the Israel Air Force’s first religious female navigator. ) (photo credit: FLASH90)
CAPT. TAMAR ARIEL was the Israel Air Force’s first religious female navigator. )
(photo credit: FLASH90)
We were so moved when we received the Defense Ministry announcement,” said Anat Ariel, the mother of Capt. Tamar Ariel, the first religious female Israel Air Force navigator, who died in a blizzard in Nepal in 2014. “We knew that they were considering the evidence and testimonies that we’d submitted. We’d been waiting for a response and were overjoyed when they accepted our request. We received so many supportive messages from people congratulating us.”
Last month, five years since Ariel met her death, the Defense and Heritage Division of the Defense Ministry announced that it had recognized Ariel as an official fallen soldier, and her family will officially be recognized as a family of a fallen soldier. The decision was made following evidence provided to the Defense Ministry that shows Ariel died while attempting to save other people’s lives, which qualifies for the 1965 Compensation Law for a Soldier Injured to Save Others’ Lives.
“Tamar was not recognized by the Defense Ministry as an IDF fallen soldier, since she had not died while taking part in an active IDF military operation,” explains her mother Anat. “The Israel Air Force and the IDF did envelop us in its protective arms, and is still in close and constant contact with us.”
“We began our efforts to achieve official IDF fallen soldier status for Tamar four years ago, but it was extremely difficult to demonstrate how our case fit the law,” Anat says. “Then, 18 months ago, we found a law from 1965 from when Moshe Dayan had been defense minister. There was already plenty of evidence, and we gathered even more testimonials and refined others, which helped our case. We did everything in coordination with the Defense Ministry guidelines.”
Why was it so important to you to achieve Fallen Soldier status for Tamar?
“We wanted to prove that Tamar had acted in accordance with the rules of conduct for soldiers on the battlefield. She’d engaged in a battle for survival in war-like conditions on that mountain. The only thing on her mind was to help save others from the horrifying situation they’d been caught in. As an officer in the IDF, she immediately took charge, gave instructions, encouraged people she encountered along the way, and warmed up those who were suffering from the intense cold.
“More than once, she bolstered local Nepali guides, who were their only hope to escape from the avalanche. Our lawyers, Hanoch Keinan, Ronit Wolf and Yitzhak Mina, sorted out all the evidence. MK Elazar Stern from the Blue and White Party stood by us the entire time and gave us tremendous support. In addition, there was another individual, who is very dear to us, who wishes to remain anonymous, for whom we have tremendous gratitude.”
How difficult was it to collect the necessary testimonials?
“It wasn’t hard gathering the testimonials. What was difficult was proving that they were relevant to the 1965 Compensation Law and showing that Tamar did indeed die on a battlefield. We actually had people lined up to offer their testimony – people who’d been hiking with her that day and had survived. They were more than happy to describe the heroic actions she’d performed.
“One Israeli man she’d come across, who’d pretty much given up hope of finding his way out of the storm, describes how her words of encouragement and the hug she gave him helped him survive. Finding the 1965 law is what enabled the ministry to change Tamar’s status, since its main focus is to recognize soldiers who were injured while saving others’ lives. We were overjoyed when we received the call from the Defense Ministry, announcing that Tamar will finally be recognized. It hasn’t made the pain of her death disappear, but it has brought us some peace of mind. I don’t miss her any less, but it has quieted my soul.”
Ariel WAS the third out of six children of Anat and Hanan Ariel, who live in Masuot Yitzhak, a collective moshav. Hanan, 61, is an agriculturalist and Anat, 56, spends her time telling Ariel’s story at high school pre-military programs and IDF units around the country. Ariel, who was 25 at the time of her death, had been a counselor in Bnei Akiva, had gone to a National-Religious high school, and had already completed two years of national service when she decided she decided to enlist in the IDF.
In 2009, she was accepted into an IAF pilot training course, and at the end of the first year, she was recruited to the fighter pilot course. At the end of her first solo flight, Ariel was forced to abandon her plane due to a malfunction. She injured her back and spent the next six months recuperating from the injury. Afterward, she returned to the pilot training course and began training as a navigator. At the same time, she was studying for a bachelor’s degree in politics and government.
In January 2013, Ariel finished her pilot training course and became the first female religious navigator in the IAF. She participated in a large number of flights, including during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014. At the end of that round of fighting, she was chosen as the unit’s most outstanding fighter. In October 2014, Ariel went on a trip with friends to the Himalayas in Nepal. During a trek on the Annapurna Trail, the group got stuck in a severe snowstorm, during which Ariel and three of her friends perished.
“It was always obvious to me that Tamar should be granted official IDF fallen soldier status,” explains Anat. “She handled the crisis in Nepal just as an IDF officer or commander would be expected to in the heat of battle. During those critical hours, she did not act as Tamar Ariel, a common person, but as Tamar Ariel the commander and officer who saved lives and died a hero’s death. We had to fight for her to be granted this honor. The 1965 law was hiding there, just waiting to be found. It was great that this gave us a legal way to prove what all of us knew she morally deserved.”
The fifth anniversary of Ariel’s death was a month ago.
“I saw an announcement on a news website about her death,” Anat says. “After she died, our family gathered together and decided that we would continue to live our happy lives and be a strong family. Over the last five years, four more grandchildren have been born, in addition to the three we already had. Two of our sons have completed IDF pilot training courses, and two of our children have gotten married. We continue to be a family that contributes to society. No one looking at us from the outside would imagine the tragedy we’ve survived.”
Where do you find the emotional strength to continue on this way?
“Mostly from our faith in God, our belief that we are part of something greater than ourselves, that we must strive to live meaningful lives. We need to put in a lot of effort to accomplish our goals, but it’s Hashem that makes the final decisions. That’s our fate, and that was Tamar’s fate. We accept this, as painful as it is. We have the power to decide how we live, and we’ve chosen to be a happy family. It’s not so simple, and there are plenty of days that we miss her so much, especially on holidays. She fulfilled so much in the 25 years she was alive, and she continues to have an impact on others even after her death.
“Tamar left a very important legacy for the world: Stick to your goals with utter determination. Be sure that what you’re doing is the right thing. She proved that girls – and especially religious girls – are talented and have incredible capabilities. She serves as a role model for religious girls who join the IDF. She was very clear about her own personal religious observance, and demonstrated that it’s possible to have a positive experience as a religious girl serving in the army, and to advance to roles with tremendous responsibility. A number of projects have been created in her memory, such as the Shafir Region running competition; Zahali, a pre-army preparatory program for religious girls; a synagogue in Sde Nehemia called Moreshet Tamar; and the Tamar Ariel High School in Netanya.
“It’s important to me that Tamar be remembered for her delightful personality and her aspiration to succeed. I want her name to evoke values such as perseverance, determination, love for her country, its people and her fellow human beings. We raised Tamar and her siblings to love the Jewish people, because there’s no other way to live. We have only one country and we must be willing to fight to keep it alive.
“When Tamar finished her two years of national service like all her friends from high school, she felt like she still hadn’t served her country enough, and so she enlisted in the IDF at the age of 20. We, of course, supported her in this decision, since we believe in supporting our children in whichever path they choose. And it is our responsibility to encourage our children at all times, and to assist them when they fall down.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.