‘I am miserable when everything is in order and quiet. Seriously, it’s hard for
me when I can go home quietly, go to sleep, and get up in the morning without
fear and tension. I feel alive inside only when obstacles are arising that must
be overcome and eliminated.”
That was Yitzhak Shamir, speaking to his
former brothers- in-arms just after emerging from the underground in 1948. It is
difficult to imagine Shamir being so open with anyone else at any other
time. Most Israelis would have a hard time saying anything about Yitzhak
Shamir as a person.
Shamir may have had the bad luck of inheriting the
underground Lehi, also known as the Stern Group, from the murdered charismatic
poet Avraham Stern, and heading the militia with Nathan Yalin-Mor, a talented
writer and diplomat of the far left, and Israel Eldad, a fiery writer and editor
of the far right. Shamir almost had to appear gray compared to his predecessor
and his two colorful partners. Shamir’s image was not helped by his having been
trained to remain silent from the time he went underground in 1940 until he quit
the Mossad around 1963.
So I was not surprised when in the 1980s Shamir
turned down my request for an interview. He relented only when I made
clear I wanted to talk about the underground, not politics. This turned into a
surprise, since he spoke openly and told me, reversing Clausewitz’s aphorism,
that he viewed politics as war by other means. I had interviewed prime ministers
and worked with statesmen – but it didn’t take me long to realize I was not
talking to a cabinet minister, I was talking to a revolutionary.
permitted to liberate a people even against its will, or against the will of the
majority,” he said, explaining Lehi’s decision to eject the British from the
Jewish homeland against the expressed desire of the community’s
“When we fought for freedom, for the establishment of a Jewish
state, we didn’t send a questionnaire to the Jewish nation asking if it wanted a
Indeed, he said, “Zionism is a revolutionary process. And
in a revolution you must be ready not to think too much about sentiments or
In 1948, Yalin-Mor had credited Shamir’s “will and
cruelty” (along with Eldad’s ardor) with helping build Lehi.
Thus it came
as another surprise to read Shamir’s letters to his wife Shulamit, who died last
year, written from a detention camp in African exile, where the British had sent
him after arresting him in 1946. He writes emotionally of missing the warmth of
his infant son’s body and expresses deep love for him and Shulamit. But he loved
the land of Israel in the same way. In a letter written just before he crawled
to freedom through a 70-meter tunnel, he says such love obligates him to act.
Shamir was a blend of hardness and deep emotion.
Several years earlier, a
few months after the murder of Abraham Stern, he and another fighter, Eliahu
Giladi, had escaped from a different British detention camp. As he escaped he
asked himself how long it would take to be ready to assassinate the British
Minister of State for the Middle East (it took him two years; Lord Moyne was
assassinated in November 1944). But shortly afterward Giladi began trying to
provoke the British to kill Jews in order to stir the Jews to kill British, and
he threatened to kill anyone who tried to stop him. Shamir consulted with
his comrades and ordered his friend eliminated.
When they finished their
assassinations, prison escapes and blowing up British installations and
officials – under Shamir’s leadership Lehi never targeted a British civilian,
women or child and he was still exiled during the some of the worst Arab-Israeli
fighting – the Sternists tried their hand at politics. Shamir expressed his
doubts about whether they could make the change before concluding that
revolution is revolution, and whatever it requires of one he must do, even
At first Shamir leaned to the left, working with Yalin-Mor to
continue Lehi’s anti-imperialist policies and expressing support for the
emergence of representative regimes in the region’s Arab countries. They looked
favorably toward the Soviet Union. But unlike Yalin-Mor, Shamir saw
international revolution and support for Israel’s working class not as a goal
but as necessary to realize Jewish destiny. That meant Jewish growth and
sovereignty over the land or, as he put it to me, a “great, beautiful, organized
and Jewish state” that “spreads Zionism and influences Jews to build their
futures in Israel.”
Shamir spoke so rarely to the nation about himself
that one might easily overlook his success. He airlifted 14,000 Ethiopian Jews
to Israel in 1991, helped ensure that hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews would
come to Israel – a struggle he joined in the 1960s, long before it was popular –
and settled tens of thousands of Jews in the disputed heartland of the country.
He decided to change Israel’s international standing and managed to reestablish
diplomatic relations with several dozen countries.
“When you start to
fight,” he noted, “and are part of a minority, you are not satisfied with
that.... Now we are the majority. This is a natural process, I see nothing
unusual about it – it is a revolution.” And, Shamir said, “All our life
in this land is a revolution.”
The writer directs the Public Policy
Center of the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies. He is the author of Stern:
The Man and His Gang.