Israel’s Grittiest Founder
Yitzhak Shamir, who died Saturday, was maligned for his politics. But his bitter realism was prescient.
Yes, he admitted without remorse, he had ordered the execution of Eliyahu Giladi, a rogue member of the Lehi, back in his underground days, insisting that there had been no alternative. The Stern Gang, which Shamir led after Avraham Stern was killed by the British, crossed lines that the more mainstream Jewish community in Palestine found abhorrent. The Lehi played a role, along with the Haganah and Begin’s Etzel, in the Deir Yassin massacre. Regarding their attempted assassination of Harold MacMichael, commissioner of the British Mandate, a wholly unrepentant Shamir later said: “There are those who say that to kill Martin (a British sergeant) is terrorism, but to attack an army camp is guerrilla warfare and to bomb civilians is professional warfare. But I think it is the same from the moral point of view. Is it better to drop an atomic bomb on a city than to kill a handful of persons? I don’t think so. But nobody says that President Truman was a terrorist.”
It’s good that many Jews struggle with the choices that leaders like Shamir and Begin and Ariel Sharon made. Yet a bit of humility is in order as we assess those who devoted their lives to building the Jewish state. Ours is not the world that Shamir and his generation inherited. Ours is a world in which the Jews are secure, and largely safe, in no small measure as a result of what those men and women did. Are we foolish enough to imagine that the British relinquished their hold on the colonies because early colonial Americans signed petitions? American Revolutionary heroes knew exactly what Shamir and others knew: The British would leave when the costs became too high.
The difference is that the American Revolution has the advantage of having unfolded centuries, rather than decades ago, so many of the disturbing details have been lost. But are we so naïve to imagine that there are not profound parallels and continuities between what unfolded in the 13 colonies in the middle of the 18th century and what happened in Palestine in the middle of the 20th?
Ben-Gurion, Begin, Shamir, and their generation, like Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and theirs, believed that freedom would come only with sovereignty and that sovereignty would come only with victory. No matter Labor or Likud, they all shared that belief—and they were all right.
For all the misgivings many now have about Shamir’s intransigence or his specific policies, part of his legacy is that Jews ought not to pretend not to know what, deep down, they know. Yitzhak Shamir knew what he had seen, both in Europe and then in the Arab world, and he knew what it meant. He was no less ambivalent about the Arabs than he was about the Poles and refused to vote for Begin’s peace treaty with Egypt. Presumably in deference to Begin, he abstained, but he made it clear that he thought Israel was paying far too high a price. Today, three and a half decades later, with the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Cairo and with Israel now missing the Sinai as a buffer, who was wiser? Was it the Nobel Prize-winning Begin who’d turned peacemaker, or Shamir, who had not? Will the sword devour forever? Yes, Shamir sadly believed, it will. Is it possible that he was right?
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