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Israel’s Grittiest Founder

Yitzhak Shamir, who died Saturday, was maligned for his politics. But his bitter realism was prescient.

Daniel Gordis
July 02, 2012
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir attending a street-naming ceremony commemorating deceased members of the Lehi, the underground that fought the British, in Petah Tikva on April 15, 1992.(AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir attending a street-naming ceremony commemorating deceased members of the Lehi, the underground that fought the British, in Petah Tikva on April 15, 1992.(AFP/Getty Images)

About a year ago, I was standing with Yitzhak Shamir’s son at a reception in the Tel Aviv area. Yair Shamir looks a great deal like his father; blink and it’s easy to imagine that you’re speaking with the former prime minister, who died this past Saturday at 96. I don’t recall everything Yair and I discussed at that reception, but I do recall how the conversation ended. We were both standing there, glasses of wine in hand, and Yair said to me: “People ask, ‘Must the sword devour forever?’ And the answer is ‘Yes, it will.’ ”

I was dumbstruck.

I was moved, first, by the ease with which some secular Israelis still glide into biblical idiom. After all, Yair could have said, “People ask, ‘Will peace never come?’ ” But he didn’t. He cited the verse, ha-lanetzach tochal cherev, a verse from Samuel II in which Abner, the commander of King Saul’s army, calls out to Joab, who led David’s forces, begging him to bring the fighting between them to an end.

But I was no less struck—and even disturbed—by the ease with which Yair simply answered “yes.” In the American, suburban home in which I was raised, we were taught that war was an aberration. Conflict is solvable. If war persisted, then both sides had been less bold than they needed to be. If Americans and North Vietnamese wanted to, they could figure out a way to end the conflict; the same was clearly true of Jews and Arabs.

It was one of the great principles of liberal Jewish American life, and I believed it with every fiber of my being. At least I did when we moved to Israel some 14 years ago.

Yair’s off-handed but startling comment, one his father surely would have made, was a reminder of what has undoubtedly been the single most difficult dimension of making aliyah—learning to accept, however grudgingly, that the moral assumptions of my old life are wholly inapplicable to the place my family now calls home. The Middle East is not a Hebrew-speaking version of the comfortable, safe, conflict-free suburban Baltimore in which I’d been raised. I had moved, Yair unintentionally reminded me, from the land of Jeffersonian optimism to the land of hard-edged biblical realism. “Yes,” this scion of Israeli royalty said to me in a way that no American probably ever would, “the sword will consume forever.”

The death of Yitzhak Shamir, one of Israel’s gritty, less-celebrated heroes, is a reminder to many of us immigrants that along with the larger houses and seemingly all-pervasive civility, what we had to leave behind was a distinctly American optimism, wholly foreign to the political reality in which we now find ourselves. When I went to the Knesset today to pay my last respects to one of the nation’s founders, I found myself musing on the brusque honesty to which we were saying goodbye. We’d love some of that upbeat American optimism. Shamir would probably have enjoyed it as well; he simply wasn’t willing to pay the price of self-delusion.


Shamir lived a life that left no room for anything but a brutally honest assessment of his surroundings. Born in Ruzhany (today Belarus), he joined Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Zionist Betar movement in his youth and cut short his law studies to make his way to Palestine. His parents and siblings were murdered during the war.

Once in Palestine, Shamir commanded the extreme, sometimes violent Lehi underground group. He was hunted by the British, arrested, and then he escaped. Post-independence, Shamir eventually joined the Mossad and entered politics relatively late in life. When Menachem Begin unexpectedly resigned as prime minister in August 1983, Shamir ascended and served, in total, longer than any other premier besides David Ben-Gurion. Though Shamir attended the Madrid Peace Conference, acceded to American requests not to respond to Iraqi attacks during the First Gulf War, and oversaw Operation Solomon, which brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, his reputation today is primarily that of a hard-liner, a member of the underground in his youth and unyielding with the Arabs later in life.

In the Jewish world, criticizing our leaders, biblical or modern, is not heresy. Abraham, as countless commentators have noted, was hardly the warmest of fathers. King David tolerated no challenges to his rule, turning even his sons into enemies. One of the majestic qualities of the Jewish tradition is that it has long recognized that great leaders are not perfect. We are taught that we can criticize our heroes even as we learn from them.

But these days, we’re much better at the critique than we are at the learning.

Yitzhak Shamir has not escaped this fate. Much maligned in life for his uncompromising positions, he has been treated no more kindly in death. At the Knesset today, I expected throngs of people and a long line, but it was virtually empty. An honor guard, his family in a row of chairs, and maybe a dozen or two onlookers. There were, quite literally, more press photographers than there were people who had come to pay their last respects. The obituaries in Haaretz verged on crudely dismissive. “Farewell to the accidental prime minister,” one obituary’s headline smirked. Another claimed that he was “an honest liar, one we can be proud of.” A “legacy of despair” crowed a third.

Yes, Shamir’s stances on territory, Palestinians, and other issues are out of vogue today, even in parts of his party, Likud. But shouldn’t his passing serve as a reminder of the ashes out of which this country was built and of the extraordinary desperation and conviction that were required to create it?

Must the sword devour forever? We’d like the answer to be no, but Shamir was not inclined to pretense. This was a man, after all, whose father escaped the Nazis only to be stoned to death by his former neighbors (and purported friends) when he returned to Ruzhany. David Landau, the former editor in chief of Haaretz, wrote in his obituary for Shamir that Shamir once said to him, “The Poles imbibe anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk,” at which point Avi Pazner, Shamir’s spokesman, interjected that “that was off the record.” “No, it wasn’t,” Shamir corrected him. He knew what he knew. He believed what he believed.

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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Daniel Gordis is Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, was just awarded the National Jewish Book Award for Book of the Year.

Daniel Gordis is Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, was just awarded the National Jewish Book Award for Book of the Year.