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The Violent Life of Yitzhak Shamir

1.

In July 1946 British troops surrounded Tel Aviv in an effort to wipe out the headquarters of the Jewish underground fighters, who they assumed were somewhere in the city. Yitzhak Yzernitsky, one of the commanders of the underground group called the Lehi—otherwise known as the Stern gang—happened to be in Tel Aviv that day, to meet with Menachem Begin, the commander of the other underground group, the Irgun. Yitzhak Yzernitsky was disguised as an Orthodox rabbi in traditional dress, and he used the name Rabbi Shamir. A British detective officer, John Martin, identified him immediately in spite of his disguise and ordered his arrest. That he did so cost the detective his life. Two gunmen from the underground, dressed as tennis players, waited for Martin at the court of his tennis club on Mount Carmel, and there they shot him down.

Many years later Yitzhak Hasson, who had been in charge of intelligence for the underground, wrote that Shamir, who knew all the secrets of the underground, was lucky not to have fallen into the hands of security services like the ones he now presides over.1 For it never entered the minds of the British to torture Shamir in order to get information out of him. They blindfolded him with a smelly rag and took him to Damascus, where, befitting his status as a dangerous man, they put him on a special plane and sent him to a detention camp in Eritrea. Together with his friend Ben Eliezer, Shamir escaped from the camp in January 1947, to the French colony of Djibouti. The French governor described the two of them as follows: “They brought me these two guys—one with the face of an intellectual and the other, his bodyguard, with the face of a killer.” (The governor thought Ben Eliezer was an intellectual.)

It is important for members of an underground, like members of the Secret Service—and Shamir was both—to have an appearance that does not attract attention. Shamir, however, has sharp, distinct features. His large head sits on a solid, dwarflike body. His jaw is square, and his eyebrows are especially bushy. Indeed, the first time Shamir wore a disguise, the uniform of a Polish officer, he was quickly spotted. In 1942, after he had escaped from the British Mazra prison in northern Palestine, and was walking along the road from Haifa to Tel Aviv, a former guard from the prison approached him and asked, “You’re in the Polish army? How did that happen?” Shamir uttered a Polish curse and ran away.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was born Yitzhak Yzernitsky in 1915, in the small Polish town of Rzhnoi.2 In his family he was known by the nick-name “Itzel.” The first name Shamir chose for himself in the underground was “Michael”—an interesting choice, for Shamir took the name from the Irish underground fighter Michael Collins, whom he greatly admired. Michael Collins, who had sprung de Valera from prison, headed the British list of wanted men. That Shamir identified himself with a professional revolutionary who had fought both the British and his own people—a tough, practical organization man rather than a man of words—is not surprising. But it is worth recalling that Collins was the person largely responsible for signing the 1921 pact with Britain which established the Republic in the southern part of the island and gave up the provinces that are now called Northern Ireland. Shamir should be compared not with Michael Collins but with the revolutionaries who ambushed Collins at Beal na Blath and killed him as a traitor for giving up a part of his ancient homeland.

A friend told me that he once heard Shamir say the biblical figure he most identified with was King Saul. It seems surprising that this melancholy, indecisive, moody king should appeal to Shamir. It may be that Shamir identifies with the Saul who went looking for his father’s donkeys and stumbled upon the kingship. Shamir always insists that he is in power not because he has chosen a career as a politician but because he is carrying out a mission. An analyst trying to trace the winding paths of his psyche would not be satisfied with such a simplistic explanation, and might risk a “deeper” one. Saul was the underground name of Eliyahu Giladi, Shamir’s friend, who had escaped with him from the Mazra prison in 1942. Believing that Giladi was an adventurer who might endanger the underground, Shamir later was responsible for his execution. Yet Shamir named his daughter, who was born in 1949, Gilada, after the same Giladi. Giladi is a skeleton that pops out of Shamir’s closet from time to time, and we will return to him later in this article.

The name Shamir, which Yitzhak Yzernitsky later adopted as his civilian name, is also interesting. To an Egyptian journalist Shamir once offered the explanation that shamir in Hebrew means a hard rock: the name was intended to show the Arabs whom they were dealing with. This meaning of the word is one that appears in the Bible in Ezekiel 3:9: “I will make your forehead like adamant [shamir], harder than flint. Do not fear them, and do not be dismayed by them.” Shamir did not mention the other meaning of his name—thorns growing in deserted wastelands: “And I will make it a desolation; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers [shamir] and thistles” (Isaiah 5:6).

I’m seventy years old today,” Shamir said in 1985. “I’ve been in the Land of Israel for fifty years and I’ve been fighting for our principles for sixty years. Do you really think I’ll give up these principles for anyone?” Seven years have passed since then. Shamir likes to say that the sea is still the same sea and the Arabs are still the same Arabs. One can just as easily say that Shamir is still the same Shamir: he will not give up the convictions of his youth. Shamir’s statement in 1985 is in my opinion the key to understanding the man and especially to understanding his policies. A man who was close to him in the underground but who is very far from him now told me, “It isn’t a matter of principles but of something much more animalistic: Shamir is a bulldog that is gripping a bone called the Land of Israel in its jaws and will not let go.”

2.

To understand Shamir one must turn to the distant past. The Yzernitsky family were tanners and not poor. Shamir’s father was a Zionist, who sent Itzel first to a modern religious Jewish school and then to the Herzliya High School in Bialystok, in eastern Poland. This high school belonged to the distinguished Tarbut Jewish educational network of Eastern Europe. The classes were held in modern Hebrew, and they included studies of the Bible and of Hebrew literature, subjects that were not taught in traditional Jewish schools in Eastern Europe. In comparison to Begin, a powerful public speaker, Shamir is almost inarticulate, but his Hebrew is precise. He also learned French for his work in the Mossad’s Paris office, and when he was elected prime minister he mastered basic English. “If I had to learn Chinese I would do it,” he said, and meant it.

The first youth movement Shamir joined was the “Gordonia.” This was a Tolstoyan Zionist youth movement, and young Itzel soon realized that it was not the place for him. He joined the “Betar” movement instead. Betar was the youth organization of revisionist Zionism, the movement founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, which aimed to revise the official Zionist policy and doctrine of Chaim Weizmann. Revisionist Zionism exploited the disillusionment that arose from the British government’s failure to carry out its promise, stated in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, to use its “best endeavours” to establish a national home for the Jews in Palestine. Unlike Weizmann, Jabotinsky believed that only strong pressure—which, he claimed, Weizmann was unwilling to use owing to the “obsequiousness of his Diaspora mentality”—could compel Britain to assist in the fulfillment of the aims of Zionism. These aims, in Jabotinsky’s view, were to create a Jewish majority on both sides of the Jordan River and, in consequence, a Jewish state there.

The adult revisionists came from the circles of the “white” Jews in Russia after the 1917 revolution. They were extreme anti-Bolsheviks, but they had liberal politics. By contrast, most of the members of the Betar youth movement came from the Jewish communities of Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, which were all very much influenced by Polish national and Catholic romanticism. These trends, in some of their manifestations, came to have fascist overtones, as indeed did the Betar movement itself. The Betar members wore neat uniforms with brown shirts and took part in quasi-military drills honoring Jabotinsky as if he were a Führer. The central idea of revisionism was the creation of Jewish armies, even in the Diaspora. This was an “orthopedic” thought—to straighten the people’s back. But it was also seen as politically necessary—Zionism would be realized in blood and fire. In practice Betar specialized in elaborate martial ceremonies: “Man’s superiority over the beast is the ceremony,” said Jabotinsky. (Ceremonies, however, have always made Shamir uncomfortable.) Betar’s central theme was nationalism mixed with much talk of blood and earth: “With blood and sweat,” a Betar anthem ran, “we will create a race, proud and generous and cruel.” Many are still waiting for the generous part to emerge.

Two tendencies were in conflict within the revisionist movement. One was a patriotic liberal nationalism, reminiscent of the spirit of the Risorgimento in Italy. The other was the Italian-style fascism of the 1920s and 1930s. Jabotinsky, at different times, expressed both. Menachem Begin, who was the head of Betar in Poland before he came to Israel, had his own inner conflicts. In the Knesset, he was a liberal; he was against imposing military government on Arabs inside Israel, and while he was the prime minister, he stopped systematic torture by the Shin Bet. But when he addressed crowds in the street he revealed himself as a ferocious demagogue.

In Shamir’s case, on the other hand, one finds no such conflicts. He’s made of different stuff. Although Shamir comes from Betar, from which he absorbed his all-encompassing nationalism, he is not, in contrast to Begin, a Betar type. He was actually shaped more by the “Maximalist Zionism” he encountered in Palestine when he first arrived there in 1935, after studying for a year at the Law School of Warsaw University.

The twenty-year-old Yzernitsky came with a student’s certificate to study Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem but he never studied there. The Hebrew literature he knows he read on his own: the writers who influenced him included Uri Zvi Greenberg (1894-1981), the highly gifted and visionary chauvinist poet and essayist whose work he still knows, and Yonatan Ratosh, whose poems he may not have read but whose militant essay, “We Aspire to Power,” he read and cherished. Shamir found a place for himself in the fringes of the Yishuv (the organized Jewish community in Palestine), where Ben Gurion and other Zionist leaders were severely criticized for preaching restraint in the face of the Arab violence that erupted in the pogroms of 1929 and continued from time to time during the 1930s, erupting in the great Arab revolt between 1936 and 1939. The greatest shock was the Arab massacre of the Jews in Hebron, who had lived there for generations and were in fact not Zionists at all.

  1. 1

    Hasson’s article appeared in Davar, September 2, 1991.

  2. 2

    The only biography of Shamir is in French: Charles Enderlin, Shamir (Paris: Olivier Orban, 1991). It contains useful information.

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