My first occasion to hear Yitzhak Shamir was in the framework of lectures that he presented in the early 1970s on the history of the Lechi (Lochmei Herut Yisrael) underground at Geula Cohen''s Midrasha Leumit. Shamir was quite detailed and made the extra effort to assure his listeners that his version was not to be considered apologetics but was based on dates, names and, of course, details on the participants could have been familiar with. Actually, despite his stern and taciturn public demeanor, in small groups he was open, humorous and easygoing. I was always amazed at his high level of Hebrew, both in vocabularly and imagery. I had to remind myself that he had arrived in Israel on a student''s visa, having been accepted to Jerusalem''s Hebrew University, the same academic institution where Avraham Stern (Yair) studied and was working on his doctorate. He was still addressed by fellow combatants as "Michael", in a Russian pronounciation of the Irish revolutionary''s name which Shamir had chosen.
Yitzhak Shamir and Geula Cohen, at Yair Stern''s grave, 1949
(credit: Geula Cohen, Voice of Valor)
I later assisted in the editing of his collected speeches, "For the Sake of Zion: Vision and Faith; Addresses and Speeches of Yitzhak Shamir”, Beit Yair, 1993 and anyone leafing through his remarks will be impressed by his devotion to those ''minor'' issues that Prime Ministers seem to avoid: a demand for Aliyah, concern for Hebrew education, the need for a strong Jewish character for the people as well as for the state all spoken in wonderful language.
I also recall one disappointing event. As coordinator of the Knesset''s Jonathan Pollard Lobby, I accompanied MKs Geula Cohen and Edna Solodar to a meeting with then Prime Minister Shamir. He listened to both women who passionately discussed the issues. This was in 1989, after their visit to Pollard and his then wife, Ann, in prison. Shamir heard them out in silence while drumming the fingers of his right hand, at times, on the arm rest. And the end of the 20 minutes, Geula asked him, "Nu?" He shrugged his shoulders and thanked us for the briefing. There was no reference to any of the essence of what was requested by Cohen and Solodar: government action on the part of two of Israel''s spies. As we walked out, Geula whispered to me, a bit embarassed to speak outloud in the presence of a Labour Mk from Kibbutz Gesher, "Winkie, he didn''t say a word!" I responded that he had actually said a lot.
I also met him, after a delay of four days, during the Madrid Peace Conference. Residents of the Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza had arrived as a self-described "independent delegation". My nieghbot, Rachella Druck, had been killed by terrorists on the way to the Tel Aviv rally (my daughter was already there with Rachella''s daughter and my wife was on another bus at the site of the attack. Rechalim now memorializes the deaths of Rachella and Yitzhak Rofeh with many many dozens of live Jews (although it bothered then the NYTimes) and we desperately wanted to talk to him before the conference opened but he was not amenable. At one point, in the face of massive Arab media profile, we ended up arranging an impromptou greeting at the hotel entrance with flowers as the Israelis delegation was bunkered down with no public presence (Madrid was no New York Jewish-wise). At the meeting
(credit: GPO. I am at the far right and to my right, counterclockwise are
Elyakim Rubinstein, Yitzhak Shamir, Uri Elitzur, Shifra Blass, Shalom Wach and PM Bureau head Yossi Ahimeir)
we tried our best and while sympathetic, Shamir stuck to his script. he had committed himself to attending and would not alter the situation, one way or another. But he later did. He came to Shiloh and planted a tree:
(credit: Yonah Tzoref)
and much more. During Shamir''s period at the state''s helm, following in the footsteps of Menachem Begin, houses, schools, factories and much more were ''planted'' throughout Eretz-Yisrael.
But there are the detractors, small people. Like at Haaretz (as Faniel Gordis observed: "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".) Or at Beinart''s Open Zion.
Over at The Tablet, Liel Leibowitz manages to rewrite history, getting things, as with the 1992 elections, literally backwards.
Even a sympathetic writer, like Daniel Gordis, can miscontrue the historical narrative as when he wrote, in The Tablet,
The Lehi played a role, along with the Haganah and Begin’s Etzel, in the Deir Yassin massacre.
There was no massacre at that Arab village which, since 1920, had been engaged in murderous anti-Jewish activity, especially in 1929 and during the 1936-1939 "Disturbances" - the true Frist Intifada - and, as the Davar newspaper, the organ of the Histadrut reported on April 4, 1948, had been sniping at the Bet HaKerem and Bayit VeGan neighborhoods. That the combined force of Irgun and Lechi, aided by a mortar unit of the Palmah, were inadequately trained for the task of house-to-house fighting, that they had no communications equipment and thus lost the necessary command control ability needed is undeniable. But there was no massacre and certainly less of what happened at Sassa, the work of the Palmah, or at the Semeramis Hotel, bombed by the Hagana. A loudspeaker was brought to warn the residents. A path to Ein Karem was left open. The survivors were trucked to Damascus Gate. There was no intentional murder of civilians. The Arabs, eventually, had to admit to but 50% of the casualties they claimed and also that there were no rapes or other acts of butchery in a BBC documentary.
Shamir''s contribution to Zionism and Israel''s security, whether in Betar, the Irgun, Lechi, the Mossad, as the Herut Movement''s coordinator for links to the Soviet Union''s Jews from 1970 and in his public offices, are what will persevere. While his stature was short, his good works were on a gigantic scale.