I’m not sure which is sadder, that Yitzhak Shamir died or that people didn’t
really know that he was still alive. For Shamir certainly was Israel’s least
appreciated prime minister, amid presiding over some of the state’s greatest
And what was that principal achievement? He kept the people
safe. Few died under his watch. He resisted international pressure for Israel to
make concessions that would have led directly to buses blowing up.
yeshiva student in Jerusalem, for two years of Shamir’s premiership, I remember
how safe the streets were. This was a time before security guards were posted at
the door of most restaurants and department stores, which largely continues till
Why? Because Shamir was adamant. He would make no territorial
compromises that would endanger Israel’s security. He would sign no Oslo
agreements where the Jewish state would agree to arm some of its most lethal
enemies. He would not even speak to Yasser Arafat, let along countenance
bringing him back to the West Bank with a small army, disguised as a police
force, to set up a terror regime with Israel’s assistance.
Shamir was not
perfect. In particular, when it came to the economy he was weak. I remember the
hyper-inflation in Jerusalem that saw nearly everyone trading American dollars
on the black market (the official white market exchange rate paid pennies on the
dollar) because of Israel’s falling currency. But economics was not his
strong suit. Protecting Jewish life was.
I came to know Mr. Shamir
quite well when I hosted him at the University of Oxford in the mid-’90s. He
seemed all but forgotten even then and told me that his dramatic drop in
popularity in Israel had been due to the euphoria over the premiership of
Yitzhak Rabin and his dramatic overtures for peace. He told me this with a touch
of resignation. It seemed he did feel under-appreciated.
he seemed to divine the catastrophe coming. It would take the murder of some
1,500 Israeli civilians (demographically equivalent to about 70,000 Americans)
and the rise of countless suicide bombings for the Israeli people to realize
that Shamir’s ironclad commitment to hold on to vital security territories and
not allow the PLO and Hamas to set up shop in Gaza and Ramallah was what kept
I spent about four days with Shamir, taking him, with a
heavy police escort, to tourist destinations all around Oxfordshire. He wanted
to stand at the grave of Winston Churchill and we travelled to Blenheim Palace
in Woodstock nearby. Apparently, the great statesman had tried to have Shamir
arrested when he was head of Lehi. Now, Shamir, diminutive in appearance but a
giant in stature, loomed over the great prime minister’s grave, paying him
homage and telling me that Churchill was an inspired man of rare
Shamir impressed all he met with his humility, warmth and
commitment to Judaism, although he was not religious himself. I walked in on him
and his wife as they were having lunch at the hotel where we put them up.
Startled, he told me was embarrassed because the food was not kosher. I assured
him I took no offense and was grateful for the many days he gave me and my
students and the outstanding lecture he had given at the Oxford
Union. Still, he said, he was raised to respect rabbis and
Many Arab students came to the large lecture he delivered and he
responded respectfully to their questions. He said he had no animosity toward
Arabs whatsoever and did not see them as Israel’s natural enemies. On the
contrary, he felt that Israel’s success as a democracy gave hope to the Arab
residents surrounding Israel that they too could one day live in free societies
with real elections.
AFTER OUR time together in Oxford I became a regular
visitor to his office in Tel Aviv in Beit Amot Hamishpat, where the Israeli
government provides offices for former premiers. Shamir’s office could not have
been more sparse. I would walk in and by and large he would be listening to the
radio. Remarkably, it one of those rigged, junk contraptions with a hanger
serving as antenna. He would always emerge from behind his desk, broad smile on
his face, and greet me and my children warmly. We would spend about an hour
together and he never showed me he did not have time to greet me or discuss
whatever was on my mind.
There is one story about Shamir I will never
forget. As we were driving from his hotel in North Oxford, through the ancient
city center, en route to a dinner with academics that I had arranged, I turned
to him and asked, “Had you remained prime minister, and now seeing how excited
the Israeli people are about peace, would you have ceded any land?”
He turned to
me with a sudden jerk of his head and said quietly but ferociously, “Not one
The writer, a rabbi, served as rabbi to the students of the
University of Oxford from 1988-1999 where he hosted many of Israel’s leaders.
The author of many books, he recently published Kosher Jesus. He is now the
Republican nominee for Congress from New Jersey’s Ninth Congressional District.
Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.