Yitzhak Shamir’s Legacy: Integrity, Modesty and Courage
Updated: Dec 20, 2018
On June 30, 2012, Yitzhak Shamir passed away at the age of 96. Israel lost more than a former prime minister and foreign minister; the country lost a devoted leader who had, in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s words, “a deep awareness of service and sense of mission.” This deep-seated sense of purpose was borne of his family’s tragic destruction in the Holocaust, and it motivated him to devote his life to the continuity of the Jewish people.
Man of Integrity and Principle
It is interesting how Yitzhak Shamir was just the opposite of most of today’s politicians. He wasn’t tall – he barely topped five feet – nor was he handsome or photogenic; he was not a grand orator nor could he be relied upon to come up with clever or memorable sound bites. But as Netanyahu said at the funeral, “when he did speak, you felt that the words that came out of his mouth had come straight from his heart.”
Yitzhak Shamir held strong convictions, including his belief that Israel should never compromise on its sovereignty over Judea and Samaria. He was not concerned with the results of the latest domestic or international polls; they had no impact on his convictions nor did they shape his position on issues which he was convinced were historically and strategically correct. He didn’t mind if people felt he was inflexible; he was passionate about his ideals and he wasn’t interested in appeasement of either his constituency or his enemies. In the salient words of Netanyahu: “He did not search out popularity or respect. Every action and decision he made had to pass one simple test – was it good for the Jewish people and the Land of Israel?” Throughout the years of development of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres often strongly disagreed with the deeply held beliefs of Yitzchak Shamir but at his funeral President Peres was the first to admit that Shamir was true to himself and never tried to imitate anyone. "He had courage, and he lived as a patriot, whether you agreed with him or not."
How ironic that Ehud Olmert said of Shamir, “He wasn’t a politician or a hack. He didn’t deal with petty politics. He was a statesman. There were times he was mistaken but he was straight as a ruler.”
Yitzhak Shamir was a modest person who never considered himself more important or more entitled than any other person. He was cut from the same cloth as his predecessor Menachem Begin and, for that matter, other early Israeli leaders: he disdained shows of materialism and opulence, be it fancy homes or expensive vacations, and preferred to live a simple fulfilling lifestyle totally focused on building and protecting the State of Israel.
Menachem Begin was considered a more religious person than Yitzhak Shamir; nevertheless Shamir had deep faith and was very knowledgeable about Jewish law and traditions. His father was Torah-observant and served as head of the Jewish community in the village of Ruzhany, which was located in the Russian empire and is now the Republic of Belarus. Many stories have been recounted about his mother’s piety, including baking challahs for Shabbos and distributing them to the poor. Although Shamir was not personally observant, he was imbued with a sensitivity and appreciation for Torah values that grew out of his upbringing and education.
There are two schools of thought regarding Yitzhak Shamir’s legacy. One school believes that he was a dreadful leader because he was unwilling to entertain the concept of “trading land for peace.” All of the negotiations over the past two decades, starting with the Oslo Declaration of Principles and continuing on through Kadima’s, Labor’s and Likud’s efforts at trading land for peace, transpired after Shamir left office. Shamir’s detractors argue that when Shamir served as Prime Minister in the 1980s he made a huge blunder when he turned down Jordan’s offer to resolve the Palestinian issue by accepting sovereignty over the West Bank. Shamir’s critics further argue that his refusal to accept Jordan’s plan was the catalyst for the Arabs’ first intifada, which began in 1987.
The second school of thought takes the very opposite position and claims that if Israel’s politicians had followed Shamir’s consistent position and didn’t yield to outside pressure, the subsequent wave of suicide bombings would never have occurred. They further argue that all of the “land for peace” negotiations have translated into our nation unilaterally giving up significant portions of land as exemplified by the disengagement from Gush Katif, without Israel getting a moment of peace in return. As one would expect, there was a mixed reaction to Yitzhak Shamir’s death, with the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper's headline calling him “A Modest Man, An Uninspiring Leader - And A Genuine Zealot,” and the more centrist Yediot Ahronot’s headline summing him up as “Cast from Steel.”
Although this debate will probably never be resolved, most people would agree that Shamir’s insistence that Israel never return the Golan Heights to Syria has proven to be a prescient decision, as thankfully the violence and anarchy that Syria is experiencing has not touched Israel. Furthermore, the Syrian government has confirmed its true colors through the brutality that its forces have inflicted on the rebels and the repeated breakdowns of “peace efforts” initiated by the United Nations. Clearly the Syrians would not have been an honest peace partner as they would not have had any qualms about terminating a land for peace agreement in order to attack Israel from the strategically powerful military position of the Golan Heights.
Yitzhak Shamir is also destined to be remembered as the man who brought a million Russians and tens of thousands of Ethiopians home to Israel. At Shamir’s funeral at the Knesset, many Russians and Ethiopians came to pay their last respects and express their appreciation for his vision to gather in and unify Jews from all four corners of the globe. In fact, Ethiopian kessim (religious leaders) conducted a ceremony near Shamir’s coffin to demonstrate their eternal gratitude. The importance that Shamir placed on aiding Jews to return to Israel was touched upon at his funeral when Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said that his friend Yitzchak was strong-willed and had no weaknesses, except for his “love for this nation, the land of our forefathers” and his love for his family.
Impact of the Holocaust
After beginning his studies at Warsaw University, Shamir moved to pre-state Palestine in 1935 and enrolled in the Hebrew University. His parents and two sisters did not leave Europe and subsequently perished in the Holocaust. Netanyahu recalled that at previous Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) programs, Yitzhak Shamir would discuss his family and their terrible demise. Shamir would describe his mother and sister who were killed by the Nazis; one sister, her husband and children murdered by a Pole who had previously worked for the Shamir family; and his father, who had initially escaped a death transport and then returned to his hometown only to be stoned to death by neighborhood farmers who had been his childhood friends.
The tragic murders of all the members of his family haunted Shamir throughout his life; he once sharply commented that "Poles imbibe anti-Semitism together with their mother's milk." Shamir often remarked that the catastrophic event of the murder of his family, instigated by the Shoah, created the fire which drove him incessantly to devote his life to the service of the Jewish people.
Timeline of Shamir’s Political Career
Soon after arriving in Palestine, Yitzhak Shamir joined a military organization called Irgun Tzvai Leumi – National Military Organization – or Etzel for short. In 1940, he followed Avraham Stern into the Lochamai Cherut Yisrael – Freedom Fighters of Israel – or Lechi for short, which was a militant underground defense organization. The following year the British authorities jailed him but in 1943 he escaped a British detention camp and rejoined Lechi, quickly rising in the ranks to become the director of operations. In 1946, he again was incarcerated by the British authorities but later made his way back to Palestine and continued in the Lechi until the organization was disbanded in 1949 after the formation of the Israel Defense Forces. While on the run from British authorities, Shamir managed to get married and have two children. Under his leadership, Lechi grew and carried out major operations, which led to the British unilaterally pulling out of the land of Israel and foiling the original UN plan for the internationalization of Jerusalem.
After spending a few years in the private sector, Yitzhak Shamir joined the Mossad in the mid-1950s and served in a leadership role for a decade, where he created the Mossad’s division for strategic planning and was responsible for tracking down and eliminating some of Israel’s worst enemies including Nazi war criminals who had fled to Egypt. He returned to the private sector for a couple of years until 1969, when Menachem Begin asked him to join the Herut Party and head its Department of Russian Immigration.
Shamir’s emergence as a mover and shaker moved quickly once he was elected to the Knesset in 1973: in 1977 he became Knesset Speaker, in 1980 he joined Begin’s cabinet as Foreign Minister and in October 1983, Shamir succeeded Menachem Begin as Prime Minister. Following the 1984 election, he first became Vice Premier and Foreign Minister in the National Unity Government when Labor leader Shimon Peres was prime minister, and then two years later they switched positions and Shamir returned to the premiership. Working together, they provided much-needed government stability and oversaw an IDF withdrawal from Lebanon and nursed the economy back to recovery from one of its worst recessions.
Following the 1988 elections, Shamir again created a National Unity Government with Labor, but with himself in the position of prime minister. After the government fell in 1990, Shamir succeeded in forming a narrow coalition government. In 1991, Shamir ordered the airlift rescue of over 15,000 Ethiopian Jews, code-named "Operation Solomon." In September 1991, he represented Israel at the Madrid Peace Conference which brought about direct negotiations with Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and – to his sorrow – the Palestinians.
Defeated in the 1992 election, Shamir stepped down from the party leadership, and subsequently retired from the Knesset in 1996.
Yitzhak Shamir witnessed the destruction of European Jewry during World War II and experienced on a very personal level the pain and agony of the Holocaust. Shamir then played an active role in the rebirth of the Jewish homeland. These events instilled in him a realization that if the Jewish people could face the nightmare of the Holocaust and emerge with its own state, it could figure out a way to deal with relatively trivial concerns such as financial issues, employment challenges for new immigrants and even intifada violence. His sense of perspective and belief in the Jewish people’s ability to deal with whatever challenges were thrown in their path were qualities that helped shape the nation’s psyche and collective national personality.
Right-wing supporters admired Yitzhak Shamir as a steadfast defender of the Land of Israel and left-wing critics assailed him as an inflexible hardliner. But almost everyone – even his political detractors – credited him as being a public figure of iron integrity, rare modesty, and fearless courage.
May his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life.