Yitzhak Shamir, like the biblical hero Joseph, made the long and miraculous journey from the depths of prison to the throne – the position of the executive chief, protector and provider for the nation of Israel.
Son of Jewish community leaders in (what is today) Belarus, Shamir, then named Icchak Jaziernicki, came to Israel as part of Jabotinsky’s Betar movement and joined the ranks of its affiliate underground Etzel (AKA the Irgun) under the leadership of the legendary David Raziel.
In 1941, Shamir made one of the many difficult decisions of his life. This was during height of the public debate regarding fighting the occupying British Mandate forces during WWII, while the British were taking part in the Allied struggle against the Nazis in Europe. The mainstream position held by Ben Gurion’s faction was that the fight to free the land of Israel from British rule would have to wait until the war with the Nazis was over. Raziel and Jabotinsky, after debating the issue, aligned themselves with the mainstream. The nationalist poet and visionary Yair -Avraham Stern saw the British imperialist occupiers as no less an enemy than the Nazis, and declared that he would continue to fight them until they pulled out of the holy land.
Shamir at first kept his loyalty to the party line of Betar leadership. But as he watched the British turning away ships full of Jewish refugees and sending them back to Nazi Europe or sending them to British-run concentration camps on the island of Cyprus, he realized that the British authority was not better for the Jews and that the land must be liberated from them.
He joined Yair’s small faction of the Irgun while it still called itself the “Irgun Tzvi Leumi in the Land of Israel” (the main faction under Raziel was called Irgun Tzvi Leumi). In the wake of a major British crackdown on the tiny underground, Shamir was arrested and sent to prison in Mazranear Akko, where he would meet his future wife Shulamit, who was arrested for illegally immigrating without a British permit. Shortly afterward, Stern was assassinated by the British secret police. Shamir broke out of prison and assumed leadership for the Lehi – “Freedom Fighters for Israel,” together with two others – Natan Yalin Mor and Yisrael Eldad.
Under his leadership, the organization grew and carried out major operations, which led to the British unilaterally pulling out of the land of Israel and foiling the UN plan for internationalization of Jerusalem. These efforts included the assassination of the British Minister of State Lord Moyne in Cairo in 1944 and that of UN emissary Count Folke Bernadotte in Jerusalem in 1948.
After the assassination of Lord Moyne in 1944, Shamir was arrested by the British and sent to a prison camp in Eritrea, Africa. Together with others, he escaped from the camp and succeeded in returning to the front of the war on the British in the land of Israel.
After the establishment of the State of Israel, Shamir was enlisted in Israel’s Mossad international intelligence organization. It is worth noting that in Israel’s early years, it was very rare for people not affiliated with Ben Gurion’s party to advance in public office.
In the early 1970’s, some thirty years after the great split in the movement, Shamir led the reunion by joining Begin’s political party, Herut. 1977 brought the beginning of a changeover in Israel’s political scene. That year, Shamir was appointed Chairman of the Knesset; in 1979 he became Foreign Minister, and in 1983 he became Prime Minister.
Another major challenge Shamir faced was the intense American pressure to reach a deal with the Palestinians. Shamir, a realist and advocate for the land of Israel, understood that these talks under pressure would not be in the best interest of Israel. He maintained the traditional Israeli stance against dealing with the PLO. At Madrid, Shamir sought to give nothing more than autonomy and official responsibility to the local Arab leadership in Judea and Samaria. Ultimately, these efforts were exploited and redirected by Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin, who used this as cover to engage illicitly with the terrorist organization and enable it to control the cities of Judea and Samaria from the beaches of Tunis.
The only rest for a freedom fighter for Israel comes with his last breath. In honor of this leader and lover of Israel, I post words written many years ago by his mentor and mine – Yair-Avraham Stern:
Unknown soldiers, without uniforms are we,
And fear and darkness surround us.
For all of our life drafted are we;
From line only death redeems us.
In red days of riots and blood,
In the black nights of despair,
In cities, in towns, our flag is high over the flood,
And upon it: defend and conquer!
We weren’t drafted by a whip like a group of slaves,
Our blood to shed in exile on sand.
Our wish: to be free men forever, not knaves!
Our dream: to die for our land!
And from every which way, thousands of obstacles hail
On our path is placed a cruel fate;
But enemies, spies and jail
Cannot make us hesitate.
And if in the streets, in the houses we’ll fall
And we’ll be buried secretly at night,
In our stead, thousands of others will call
To conquer forever and fight.
In the tears of mothers of sons bereaved,
And in the blood of pure babies of late,
As in cement bodies to bricks will be cleaved
And the building of our homeland we’ll create!
Written by ‘Yair,’ Pesach 1932,
Translated by Shifra Shomron