First Person: When Shamir went walking

Yitzhak Shamir was fond of a daily constitutional. He never ignored anyone who stopped to talk to him.

Shamir sits in contemplation in his office in 1983 (photo credit: Sven Nackstrand)
Shamir sits in contemplation in his office in 1983
(photo credit: Sven Nackstrand)
In the days prior to the assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli leaders were not as heavily guarded as they are now, and went out into the street. Rabin used to walk out of the front gate of his residence to the car that was transporting him, and, coming home, he would exit the car when it was parked outside the gate.
Yitzhak Shamir was fond of a daily constitutional.
Usually he took it at night, at the end of a busy work day, walking around the block from Balfour Road or taking a somewhat longer trek along Gaza Street.
He was a brisk walker and was accompanied by a solitary security guard on foot and another trailing him in a slow-moving vehicle.
The residents of Rehavia used to stop and exchange a few words with him or wave to him as he went past. He always returned the wave, and never ignored anyone who stopped to talk to him.
Although he was known to be a hard-line right-winger who did not deviate one iota from his ideology, his non-political personality was warm and inviting, and when he smiled, his eyes and his whole face lit up in an extremely contagious manner.
One night at about 11 p.m., my phone rang.
On the other end of the line was David Landau, who was then the news editor of The Jerusalem Post. He had a front page story about Shamir, but it was lacking a couple of vital points and he wanted me to get them. I was not the political reporter, but I lived only three buildings away from the Prime Minister’s Residence.
“I can’t just knock on his front door,” I protested.
“You don’t have to,” Landau replied. “He’s going out for his walk in a minute. Just walk behind him and ask him.”
That’s exactly what happened. I caught up with Shamir in the street, walked behind him, asked the questions, got the answers without him even turning his head, ran home, called Landau, repeated what I had been told – and in the morning found my byline on a front page political story about the prime minister.
That could never happen today.
The prime minister does not walk down the street, and even when he is at some public event, his bodyguards are careful to keep most people away from him.
While it was an interesting challenge to interview Shamir while walking behind him, I was much more comfortable interviewing his wife, Shulamit Shamir, who graciously received me in the living room of the residence.
The wives of presidents and prime ministers have particular interests that they pursue. Lea Rabin was interested in autistic children, Reuma Weizmann in deaf children, Aura Herzog in beautifying the country and Nava Barak in youth at risk. For Shulamit Shamir, it was the welfare of senior citizens.
That was the main thrust of the interview, but we also spent a lot of time talking about her life as a girl in Bulgaria and her desire to form a living bridge between the country of her birth and her historic homeland.
Bulgaria recognized Israel in December 1948, but severed diplomatic ties in June 1967. Relations were renewed in May 1990. Shulamit Shamir was very proud of the fact that during World War II, Bulgaria was one of the few countries in Europe that actively prevented the deportation of its Jews to the Nazi gas chambers.
Shulamit Shamir, who was genuinely the light of her husband’s life, died just under a year ago.