Shamir and the Stern Gang

Shamir may have had the bad luck of inheriting the underground Lehi from the murdered charismatic poet Avraham Stern.

Stern Gang logo 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Stern Gang logo 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘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.
“It is 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 leaders.
“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 Jewish state.”
Indeed, he said, “Zionism is a revolutionary process. And in a revolution you must be ready not to think too much about sentiments or human weaknesses....”
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 politics.
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.