Late last month, the Toronto Star reflected on the mix of tragedy and triumph which have marked climbs on Mount Everest this season, one of the deadliest on record. Tragically, Canadian Shriya Shah-Klorfine died on her descent after having reached the summit. Triumphantly, in what the Star called an “act of raw heroism,” one man’s actions stood out: “A tough young Israeli, Nadav Ben-Yehuda, gave up his dream of scaling the summit this year when he was within 250 metres of reaching it to save the life of a fellow climber, Aydin Irmak.”
Irmak, an American originally from Turkey, had lapsed into unconsciousness. Ben-Yehuda, 24, who had trained for two years and was poised to become the youngest Israeli to reach the top, instantly gave up his quest after spotting Irmak.
“Risking his own life,” the Star noted, Ben-Yehuda “strapped Irmak… to his harness and manoeuvred him 1,000 metres down the icy slopes, past frozen corpses and amid violent gales and deadly cold. It took eight gruelling hours. In the Israeli military, ‘you never leave a friend in the field,’ he explained.”
Israeli media reported on the extraordinary details. Though struggling in -40 Celsius winds, Ben-Yehuda had to shed his gloves, as they made the rescue too awkward, and proceeded without oxygen after having his mask break. Facing possible amputation of fingers because of severe frostbite, Ben-Yehuda later said he has no regrets.
While certainly an exceptional case of self-sacrifice, Ben-Yehuda’s act reflects in broader terms a side of Israelis that few in the West ever read about.
Though other Canadian media outlets reported about this amazing human drama, the Star’s decision to note it in an editorial stands out as a testament to Ben-Yehuda’s care and courage.
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In stark moral contrast, last week’s revelations of the massacre of more than 100 Syrian civilians in Houla, including the horrific close-range shootings of scores of women and children, spurred media revulsion in editorials and other commentary.
Many, but not all, placed the blame squarely on Syrian President Bashar Assad, and more strongly than ever rebuked Russia (and China) for continuing to shield Assad in the face of mounting atrocities perpetrated by him in defiance of a UN “ceasefire” plan he supposedly accepted.
According to Alex Thomson of Britain’s Channel 4 News (one of a very small number of journalists who managed to enter Houla in the days following the massacre and interview scores of witnesses), the Houla attack was carried out by the “Shabiya” – militia fighters operating under Assad’s military.
Dressed in military uniform and numbering around 100, they were identified by the townspeople as having come from nearby Alawite villages. The force entered Houla just after Assad’s military had shelled the town for several hours. The timing of their appearance is further proof (as if any is needed) that the Shabiya work as an arm of the Assad regime and not, as some journalists who were not even in the country reported, as members of “civilian gangs” (implying rogue elements for which Assad is not responsible).
As to Russia (which, along with Iran, supplies Syria with arms), Moscow’s support of Assad reached a new level of callousness in the aftermath of the Houla massacre. Speaking alongside British Foreign Secretary William Hague in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to trivialize the atrocity, saying that since it takes “two to dance,” rebel forces must assume their share of responsibility. (Compounding the insensitivity of his analogy, he decided to clarify that what he really had in mind was not “the tango” but rather “disco” since “several dozens are taking part.”)
According to a Guardian news report of Lavrov’s comments and related events, a “prominent” independent Russian journalist, Vladimir Varfolomeyev, disgusted by his country’s actions, wrote: “We will not forget that Assad’s crimes became possible because, in part, Russia did not allow the [UN] Security Council to take tough decisions on Syria in the spring… We are accomplices.”
Paul Michaels is director of research and communications for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.