The life of former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir reflected the turbulent history of his people in the almost one hundred years that elapsed between his birth in a small Polish hamlet and his death in Israel on Saturday.
Shamir, who was 96, will be remembered chiefly for his tough and unyielding attitude as Israel’s prime minister, a role he held from 1983 to 1984 and again from 1986 to 1992. He was famously proud of refusing to agree to any territorial withdrawals and stubbornly maintaining a status quo that has become, two decades after he left office, even more intractable.
But Shamir’s worldview was forged much earlier, in the upheaval of the 1930s and 1940s, and it was those years that set the inner compass that guided him throughout his public life.
People who believe in conferences and diplomacy are “naïve,” their faith mere “wishful thinking,” he once wrote. He was referring to diplomatic efforts before Israel’s creation in 1948, but might have been talking about the peace efforts and summits of which he was dismissive as Israel’s leader many decades later.
Jews, he believed, could rely only on themselves and especially on their ability and willingness to use force in their own defense. This was true in the late 1920s, when Jews were killed in Arab riots in Mandatory Palestine, events that galvanized the young Shamir and helped form his political views; it was true in the 1940s, when Nazis and Poles killed Shamir’s family; it remained true in the 1980s, when Shamir succeeded Menachem Begin as Israel’s prime minister; and it remained true after he left office, as Israel began pursuing peace agreements that he saw as dangerous lapses in judgment.
“Ecclesiastes, of course, was right,” he wrote in his 1994 memoir, “Summing Up.” “Indeed, nothing is new under the sun.”
Born Yitzhak Yezernitzky in 1915 in Rujenoy, a Polish hamlet that he described as “so small no train stopped there,” he would later recall a childhood spent speaking Yiddish, learning Hebrew and imagining the lives of Biblical heroes, people like Moses, David, and Saul, who, he wrote, “peopled my daydreams.”
As a young man, he was drawn by the charismatic Revisionist Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky and joined his group, Beitar. In those years he met Begin, who was also active in Revisionist circles.
In 1935, Shamir remembered walking on a Warsaw street and seeing a newspaper article announcing a visit to Poland by Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief. “What are you doing here?” he remembered asking himself. “Poland is lost.” He left for Palestine soon after.
On November 2, 1942, the Jews of Rujenoy were sent to Treblinka, and the clipped, unsentimental prose of Shamir’s memoir suggests this was perhaps the central event of his life. His family had not been able to follow him to Palestine when that was still possible, he wrote in his memoir, because they could not afford the £1,000 fee demanded by British authorities.
His mother and one of his sisters were killed at the camp. Another sister ran with her husband and children to a nearby forest and to a shelter that her husband had prepared with a Polish friend. The friend was waiting for them, Shamir wrote, and killed the entire family.
His father, a moderately successful businessman, “turned to old friends from ‘his’ village for help, to men on whose backs I used to climb in childhood and whose big, smiling faces I still see,” Shamir wrote.
“They too betrayed his trust – and murdered him.”
In Palestine, Shamir joined the Irgun underground, made up of Jabotinsky’s followers, and in 1940 he left to join the even more extreme group Lehi – a Hebrew acronym for Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, a small splinter faction dedicated to driving the British out of Palestine. Lehi rejected the mainstream Zionist leadership’s view that the British should not be harassed while they fought Nazi Germany.
Shamir was proud of his involvement in planning the assassination of the British official Walter Edward Guinness, Lord Moyne, in Cairo in November, 1944. He took less responsibility for the equally notorious 1946 assassination of the Swedish diplomat and UN mediator Folke Bernadotte, which he wrote “was conceived in Jerusalem by Lehi members operating there more or less independently.”
“Our opinion was asked, and we offered no opposition,” he wrote.
British officials were not the only people in Shamir’s cross-hairs in those years. He was faced with a Lehi man, Eliahu Giladi, whose behavior was increasingly erratic and who had come to advocate plans to kill David Ben-Gurion and other members of the mainstream Zionist leadership, and to throw a grenade into a Jewish demonstration to provoke anger against the British. This was too extreme even for Lehi, and Shamir, who believed Giladi’s behavior was endangering the organization, had him killed in 1943.
Living underground, on the run from the British and disguised as a pious Jew, Shamir – known by the code-name Michael – fell in love with his runner, a Bulgarian immigrant named Shulamit, who was in charge of bringing him food and supplies and relaying messages. They were secretly married, and when she became pregnant, Lehi had to provide Shulamit with a fictitious husband so she would not attract attention.
Shamir had already been jailed once and had escaped. He was picked up again in July 1946 — his Orthodox disguise did not fool one British sergeant, who recognized his bushy eyebrows. He was exiled to Eritrea, but managed to escape again and arrived back in Israel a few days after independence in May 1948.
Shamir entered politics after stints as a bookkeeper and a Mossad agent, joining the Likud Party and becoming an ally of Begin, whom he professed to like though he cared little for his famous speeches – Shamir disliked their “pathos and overstatement” – and thought he was “hungry for popularity.”
Another gap between the men was rooted in their time in the underground. Begin, he wrote, “hadn’t approved of, or understood, Lehi’s modus operandi. He opposed all assassination.”
The prime ministers who followed Shamir, most of them Israeli-born, amassed personal wealth and had rich friends and backers. Shamir was the last Israeli leader in the Ben-Gurion tradition of asceticism. As prime minister, he could often be seen out walking in Jerusalem’s Talbieh neighborhood with his wife and a lone bodyguard. He remained gruff and unimpressed by titles or ceremony.
In 1991, Shamir was pressed by President George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, to attend a Mideast peace conference at Madrid that had been convened along with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In return for territorial compromise, the idea went, Israel would receive peace. The conference flew in the face of everything Shamir had learned from history, but he went, spoke about Israel’s desire for peace, did not budge on anything substantive, and returned home with his worldview intact.
Peace “was not in the picture and it is still not there as I write,” he wrote three years later, “while President Bush, President Gorbachev, Secretary Baker and I have all, in the meanwhile, left the stage.”