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.