Yitzhak Shamir’s Good, Great Life

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Originally published in The Jerusalem Post. 

There was something about Yitzhak Shamir, Israel’s seventh prime minister who passed away last Saturday, that made you feel shy, in awe when you stood in his presence. In his eulogy at Sunday morning’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu noted that Shamir “didn’t radiate charisma. He simply radiated inner strength.”

Shamir, the diminutive, taciturn leader, was a strong man. And Netanyahu was absolutely right, Shamir’s strength owed to his commitment to his convictions. What motivated him to act were not external conditions, but an internal compass, an internal call to devote his life to the Jewish people and our freedom and safety in our land.

Netanyahu began his eulogy to Shamir on Sunday morning by placing him in the context of his generation. Netanyahu said, “Yitzhak Shamir was from the generation of giants that founded the State of Israel.”

There is much truth in this statement. The generation of Jews that came of age in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s and established the State of Israel confronted challenges unmatched in human history. They survived the European Holocaust. They stood down and bested the British Empire. They withstood massive terror from the Arabs and repression and betrayal from the British. They defeated the invading armies of five Arab states with a ragtag force of Holocaust survivors and farmers, with little access to arms, and almost no money.

They carved a beautiful, modern country out of the rocks and sands of a long-desolate land.

They absorbed massive waves of aliya from all over the world. They brought together Jews with diverse customs, traditions and languages and reforged a unitary Jewish people bound to one another by our common heritage, faith, resuscitated language and land – all stronger than what divided us.

They suffered agonizing losses at every turn.

But they kept moving forward, sometimes in giant leaps, usually in tiny steps. But they kept moving forward.

So it is true that Shamir’s generation of Jews had more than its normal share of great men and women. But to do Shamir’s memory the justice it deserves it is important not to obscure his personal greatness by bracketing him inside his generation. This is true for two reasons.

First, it was not inevitable that Shamir became a strong, dedicated, successful leader.

Many in his generation were not.

Shamir faced enormous challenges. And his most serious challenges came from his fellow Jews. People like Chaim Weizmann – whom the late Benzion Netanyahu referred to as “a disaster for the Jewish people,” due to his chronic preference for British approval over Jewish national and legal rights – were more than willing to compromise away the national rights of the Jews to a state of our own in our historic homeland.

Indeed, in the years preceding Israel’s declaration of independence, national sovereignty was only perceived as a viable option and reasonable goal by a minority. As Shamir said in a 1993 interview published this week by The Times of Israel, in 1945 David Ben-Gurion called for the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth, rather than a sovereign Jewish state. As Shamir put it, “It was curious that the Zionist movement officially didn’t accept the slogan of a Jewish state as the aim of the Zionist movement!… Weizmann was against it….He want[ed] Jewish unity here… not a state.”

LATER, DURING Shamir’s tenure as prime minister in the unity government with then-foreign minister Shimon Peres and the Labor Party from 1986 to 1988, Peres sought to undermine his leadership and bring about his defeat in the 1988 elections by collaborating with foreign governments against him.

According to top secret documents from 1988 first disclosed by Yediot Aharonot’s Shimon Schiffer in June 2011, Peres collaborated with then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to destabilize Shamir’s government. Peres also sought US assistance in subverting Shamir and fomenting his electoral defeat. Aside from that, in breach of both Israeli law and the expressed wishes of Shamir, Peres dispatched his emissary, then-Foreign Ministry director general Avraham Tamir, to Mozambique for secret meetings with Yasser Arafat.

Throughout his career, Peres, who is also a member of Shamir’s generation, has distinguished himself as a politician who prefers his personal gain over that of his nation. In keeping with this consistent preference, last month Peres traveled to Washington to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from US President Barack Obama, at the same time that Obama rejected Israel’s request to commute the life sentence of Jonathan Pollard. It is safe to say that Shamir would probably not have been offered such an award from a US president.

But it is also safe to say that had he been offered the award, Shamir would have used the occasion to publicly press for Pollard’s release.

The other reason it is wrong to view Shamir as a mere product of his times is because by doing so, we effectively say that there is no point in emulating him. If he only became the person he became because he lived through the times he lived through, then his story has nothing to teach us about what it means to lead, or to live a meaningful, good life in the service of a goal greater than ourselves. And this cannot be true.

In a poetic coincidence of timing, as Netanyahu eulogized Shamir on Sunday morning, Netanyahu’s immediate predecessor, Ehud Olmert, entered a courtroom in Tel Aviv for the start of his criminal trial related to the so-called Holyland Affair. Olmert is accused of taking bribes from the developers of the capital’s architectural monstrosity cynically named “Holyland,” during his tenure as mayor of Jerusalem. He allegedly received money and other benefits in exchange for his willingness to allow the developers to expand the size of the project to more than 10 times the size initially allocated for it.

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  • Nakba1948

    Nonsense. Shamir was a terrorist through and through, whether as a member of Lehi or in his position as Prime Minister of the terrorist bandit entity known as "Israel." Good riddance to bad rubbish. http://consortiumnews.com/2012/07/02/yitzhak-sham

    • Lan Astaslem

      listen you mus slime pile of s*&t, Shamir was one of the best because he didn't take any crap from the 'palestinians' (the invented people). Israel is here to stay you pathetic loser – get used to it.

      • EthanP

        Please. Nakba 1948 can't help it. He/she has been raised on the most vile propaganda. Your annalysis is correct. But insults etc. should not appear on this site.

    • EthanP

      And after saying what I did to Lan, the fact that you proudly celebrate the death of a human being says more about YOU than anything any commentator could.

    • NotaBene

      He was also pen pals with Hitler.

      He and the rest of the Revisionist gang used to proudly call themselves fascists before the word became taboo.

  • EthanP

    Shamirs crime as seen by the media and much of the world Jewish community was that unlike Ben Gurion, Weitzman, Eban et al, he wasn’t a man of the left. Like Begin and Netenyahu he suffers the stigma of not being one of “us”, liberal, secular, forward looking Jews. Begining with the Clinton administration, the US Democrate Party has expended considerable effort to get and keep Likud out of power. Shamir deserves to be remembered for what he was, a Jewish-Israeli patriot. And no one with integrety can gainsay that!

  • clarespark

    It is true that young Shamir was in the Stern Gang, a splinter of the Irgun. It is true that the Stern Gang was responsible for the assassination of Count Bernadotte, whose plan for Israel would have given the Negev to the UK, who wanted it for a military base. Had the Irgun not driven the British from Palestine, the UK would probably still hold the Mandate. I wrote about the early UN undermining of the Nov. 1947 partition resolution briefly here: http://clarespark.com/2009/09/11/oil-politics-and…. But only briefly, as the story is so volatile that I have procrastinated in publishing all of what I found. Toward the end of the blog, I give a hint as to what I found in the archives. There was one and only one reason Israel exists today. In 1948, Israelis took terrific casualties in defense of their country. It scared their neighbors into coming to the armistice table.

  • UCSPanther

    It was through the courage and hard work of people like Shamir that the wealthy, thriving oasis known as Israel was founded.

    Israel has become an outpost of law and order, democracy and tolerance, all virtues found virtually nowhere else in the Middle East.

  • Michael

    All you rightists need to do your research. After the summer of 1946 i.e. in the most crucial period, the Lehi were a group of the left. Here's a message they put out:

    "Our Arab neighbour is not our enemy. No stranger to this land; he lives amongst us and will continue to do so after the last British soldier has departed."

    If you can't read Hebrew, then get a copy of Joseph Heller's 'Stern Gang' book. Identifiably a group of the left for much of its existence.

    @ clarespark

    "Had the Irgun not driven the British from Palestine, the UK would probably still hold the Mandate."

    Doubt it. They left everywhere else, why would Israel/Palestine be different?

  • http://minecraft-servers.biz Melisa

    Thank you all for your replies.There is no need to do that.

  • Folke Bernadotte

    The world would have been a better place if Icchak jeziernicky had not been born, he and others of his stamp who invaded the land of Palestine are responsible for much of the misery in the world today, may he and his ilk rot in hell.