The Violent Life of Yitzhak Shamir

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. 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. 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 …

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