ReFuel January 2020 - Hero Profile

FFT Hero Profile: Yitzhak Shamir

We at Fuel For Truth believe that everyone has the potential to play an important role in the story of Israel and the Jewish people. Every issue of ReFuel we highlight someone who has left their mark in an extraordinary way and hope they serve as an inspiration to find your place in this incredible story.

If you ask Israelis who lived during his leadership what they remember of Yitzhak Shamir, a handful of words will likely repeat themselves; tough, stubborn, uncompromising, and deeply Zionistic.

Yitzhak Shamir was a member of the founding generation of Israel's leaders. Those whose political ideology matured in the crucible of warfare against the enemy of the day: first the Nazis, then the British, then the Arabs, and eventually competing political factions. He was a member of deeply nationalist Jewish organizations from the time he developed a political consciousness; Betar, Irgun, Lehi, and eventually Likud. He was a strong political leader who never forgot the tragedies that befell the Jews of Europe, stating once “never be desperate, that is my slogan.” His formative years were spent in the company of superstars like Jabotinsky, Ben-Gurion, Begin, and Stern.

Born Yitzhak Yezernitsky in Belarus in 1915, he spent much of his formative years in Poland. There he studied law at the University of Warsaw, joined the Betar youth group, and famously observed “every Pole sucked anti-Semitism with his mother's milk." Feeling uncomfortable as a Jew in Poland, he left law school without earning a degree and immigrated to British Palestine in 1935. Despite his best efforts to smuggle his family out of Europe; his mother, father and two sisters died in the camps. On his way to British Palestine he met his future wife Shulamit in a refugee detention camp and it was there that he took for himself the surname Shamir, Hebrew for thorn; fitting given his prickly political legacy...

Once in British Palestine he, like many zealous Zionists, aligned with one of the many paramilitary factions of the day. Shamir, along with Menachem Begin, joined the Irgun and later became a leader of its more belligerent splinter faction Lehi, also known as the Stern Gang. Much like the Irish Republicans of the era, Shamir and Lehi took an unwavering stance against the British occupation of the land of Israel, and felt that independence could only be realized through armed struggle and expelling the colonial power. As a member of the Lehi leadership, Shamir planned the assassination of Lord Moyne, British Minister for Middle East Affairs, and Count Folke Bernadotte, the United Nations representative in the Middle East. He was arrested by the British following the assassinations and sent to a prison camp in Eritrea but subsequently escaped back to British Palestine through a series of covert Lehi operations.

As a member of the right wing Likud party Shamir served as Knesset Speaker, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and eventually Prime Minister. Though his tactics became more diplomatic once he assumed political office, his philosophy on Jewish sovereignty remained existential. An eastern European Jew himself, Shamir pressured the United States to streamline Soviet Jewish immigration to Israel following the collapse of the Soviet Union thereby facilitating the emigration of nearly one million Soviet Jews to Israel. He also ordered the airlifting of 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel following the collapse of their country in what became known as Operation Solomon. Above all, Shamir considered himself a protector of Jewish life and felt that only a strong Israel could accomplish that goal.

During the first Intifada he deployed thousands of troops to the territories, feeling that strength more than diplomacy would quell the uprising. Terrorist attacks were met with a forceful military response lest there be any confusion as to Shamir’s position on Jewish primacy over Israel. To further the point, he supported settlement expansion during his tenure stating, “All of the land of Israel is ours” and “…without settlement we will not fulfill Zionism.”

He did not support the Camp David Accords and was skeptical of negotiating with the PLO. Skepticism turned into outright opposition and in 1992 he lost his re-election bid to Labor Party leader Yithak Rabin. Despite his loss, he remained in the Knesset until 1996 if only to raise the volume of dissent in the boisterous house of Israeli politics. 

Yitzhak Shamir left our world in 2012 at the age of 96 from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease. Born into persecution and orphaned by anti-Semitism, Shamir was a valiant fighter for Jewish freedom and the reestablishment of sovereignty throughout our homeland.

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