Shamir: Modest living, a ‘don’t panic’ perspective

Shamir saw what Jews went through in Europe, but he also took an active part in Israel’s rebirth.

July 3, 2012 02:58
3 minute read.
Shamir in cockpit of Cobra helicopter gunship

Yitzhak Shamir in cockpit of Cobra helicopter gunship 370. (photo credit: Jonathan Reif/IDF Spokesman’s Office))

More than any other Israeli politician I have covered over the last quarter century, Yitzhak Shamir – who was buried in Jerusalem on Monday – embodied the steely resilience of his people.

He came squarely out of the “we survived pharaoh, we can survive this as well” school of thought. Nothing fazed him, at least outwardly. Nothing daunted him, nothing took him aback.

That was one of the two qualities that stand out when thinking of Shamir. The other was his lack of pretension; the modesty of his lifestyle. Both qualities are praiseworthy; both needed by today’s leaders.

Regarding his modest lifestyle, a family friend rented an apartment in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood in the early 1980s when Shamir was the foreign minister and a major political force in the country.

He was shocked to learn a few days after moving in that the quiet, unpretentious couple in the modest flat across the hall was none other than the Shamirs.

This simplicity of lifestyle is an admirable trait, especially when leaders ask the country to make sacrifices. Not in Shamir’s file can there be found stories about luxury apartments, lavish trips abroad, a post- or pre-premiership chase after wealth. Shamir, like Menachem Begin who preceded him, disdained opulence and lived in simple surroundings.

“Ah, but those were different, less materialistic times,” the counterargument goes. “Everybody had less.”

True, but societal values are impacted from the top. The example leaders set, the way they live their personal lives, filters down to the people. And the example Shamir set – little, tough, proud Shamir who walked briskly a few paces in front of his security guard on his daily walk – was one where simplicity, not rampant materialism, was to be esteemed.

As for Shamir’s unflappability, I experienced this while covering the immigration and absorption beat back in the early 1990s when Shamir, as prime minister, oversaw the great waves of Russian-speaking and Ethiopian immigration. Once in early 1992, while the administration of George H. W. Bush threatened to withhold badly needed loan guarantees if construction in the settlements continued, Shamir went to a school in Jerusalem for some kind of ceremony. There he was asked about the impending crisis with the US.

I don’t remember his exact reply, but I remember the gist, which was very similar to the gist of all his reactions to reporters’ breathless questions of impending doom during those days – be it from the first intifada, the crisis with the US or scuds from Iraq during the first Gulf War.

“Tov,” he would say, “things are not so bad; they’ve been worse; relax, keep things in proportion. We’ve had to deal with worse in the past, we can handle this.”

This perspective was not religiously based, it was not of the put-your-faith-in- God-because-he-will-take-care-of-things variety, but rather based on his historical perspective and a faith, as his son said Monday at his funeral, in the eternity of the Jewish people.

Shamir saw what the Jews went through in Europe before statehood; he experienced through the destruction of his family the pain and that agony of the Holocaust.

But he also experienced and took an active part in Israel’s rebirth. If the Jewish people could face the nightmare of the Shoah and emerge in a state of its own, it could deal with such trivial issues as loan guarantees, lack of suitable employment for immigrants and even intifada violence.

Some mocked as unrealistic his “Tov, we’ve seen worse, we’ll manage” approach; others saw it as a healthy, Jewish way of putting this people’s dayto- day tribulations into greater historical perspective. Instead of panicking, Shamir radiated a supreme confidence in the Jewish people’s ability to deal with the challenges thrown in its direction.

This is a quality the country needs in its leaders today, no less than it did 25 years ago.

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