Lily’s Room

July-03-2012 Looking back

Tablet Mag (

Israel’s Grittiest Founder, 2 July 2012

Yitzhak Shamir, who died Saturday, was maligned for his politics. But his bitter realism was prescient.

by Daniel Gordis

About a year ago, I was standing with Yitzhak Shamir’s son at a reception in the Tel Aviv area. Yair Shamir looks a great deal like his father; blink and it’s easy to imagine that you’re speaking with the former prime minister, who died this past Saturday at 96. I don’t recall everything Yair and I discussed at that reception, but I do recall how the conversation ended. We were both standing there, glasses of wine in hand, and Yair said to me: “People ask, ‘Must the sword devour forever?’ And the answer is ‘Yes, it will.’ ”

I was dumbstruck.

I was moved, first, by the ease with which some secular Israelis still glide into biblical idiom. After all, Yair could have said, “People ask, ‘Will peace never come?’ ” But he didn’t. He cited the verse, ha-lanetzach tochal cherev, a verse from Samuel II in which Abner, the commander of King Saul’s army, calls out to Joab, who led David’s forces, begging him to bring the fighting between them to an end.

But I was no less struck—and even disturbed—by the ease with which Yair simply answered “yes.” In the American, suburban home in which I was raised, we were taught that war was an aberration. Conflict is solvable. If war persisted, then both sides had been less bold than they needed to be. If Americans and North Vietnamese wanted to, they could figure out a way to end the conflict; the same was clearly true of Jews and Arabs.

It was one of the great principles of liberal Jewish American life, and I believed it with every fiber of my being. At least I did when we moved to Israel some 14 years ago.

Yair’s off-handed but startling comment, one his father surely would have made, was a reminder of what has undoubtedly been the single most difficult dimension of making aliyah—learning to accept, however grudgingly, that the moral assumptions of my old life are wholly inapplicable to the place my family now calls home. The Middle East is not a Hebrew-speaking version of the comfortable, safe, conflict-free suburban Baltimore in which I’d been raised. I had moved, Yair unintentionally reminded me, from the land of Jeffersonian optimism to the land of hard-edged biblical realism. “Yes,” this scion of Israeli royalty said to me in a way that no American probably ever would, “the sword will consume forever.”

The death of Yitzhak Shamir, one of Israel’s gritty, less-celebrated heroes, is a reminder to many of us immigrants that along with the larger houses and seemingly all-pervasive civility, what we had to leave behind was a distinctly American optimism, wholly foreign to the political reality in which we now find ourselves. When I went to the Knesset today to pay my last respects to one of the nation’s founders, I found myself musing on the brusque honesty to which we were saying goodbye. We’d love some of that upbeat American optimism. Shamir would probably have enjoyed it as well; he simply wasn’t willing to pay the price of self-delusion.

Shamir lived a life that left no room for anything but a brutally honest assessment of his surroundings. Born in Ruzhany (today Belarus), he joined Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Zionist Betar movement in his youth and cut short his law studies to make his way to Palestine. His parents and siblings were murdered during the war.

Once in Palestine, Shamir commanded the extreme, sometimes violent Lehi underground group. He was hunted by the British, arrested, and then escaped. Post-independence, Shamir eventually joined the Mossad and entered politics relatively late in life. When Menachem Begin unexpectedly resigned as prime minister in August 1983, Shamir ascended and served, in total, longer than any other premier besides David Ben-Gurion. Though Shamir attended the Madrid Peace Conference, acceded to American requests not to respond to Iraqi attacks during the First Gulf War, and oversaw Operation Solomon, which brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, his reputation today is primarily that of a hard-liner, a member of the underground in his youth and unyielding with the Arabs later in life.

In the Jewish world, criticizing our leaders, biblical or modern, is not heresy. Abraham, as countless commentators have noted, was hardly the warmest of fathers. King David tolerated no challenges to his rule, turning even his sons into enemies. One of the majestic qualities of the Jewish tradition is that it has long recognized that great leaders are not perfect. We are taught that we can criticize our heroes even as we learn from them.

But these days, we’re much better at the critique than we are at the learning.

Yitzhak Shamir has not escaped this fate. Much maligned in life for his uncompromising positions, he has been treated no more kindly in death. At the Knesset today, I expected throngs of people and a long line, but it was virtually empty. An honor guard, his family in a row of chairs, and maybe a dozen or two onlookers. There were, quite literally, more press photographers than there were people who had come to pay their last respects. The obituaries in Haaretz verged on crudely dismissive. “Farewell to the accidental prime minister,” one obituary’s headline smirked. Another claimed that he was “an honest liar, one we can be proud of.” A “legacy of despair” crowed a third.

Yes, Shamir’s stances on territory, Palestinians, and other issues are out of vogue today, even in parts of his party, Likud. But shouldn’t his passing serve as a reminder of the ashes out of which this country was built and of the extraordinary desperation and conviction that were required to create it?

Must the sword devour forever? We’d like the answer to be no, but Shamir was not inclined to pretense. This was a man, after all, whose father escaped the Nazis only to be stoned to death by his former neighbors (and purported friends) when he returned to Ruzhany. David Landau, the former editor in chief of Haaretz, wrote in his obituary for Shamir that Shamir once said to him, “The Poles imbibe anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk,” at which point, Avi Pazner, Shamir’s spokesman, interjected that “that was off the record.” “No, it wasn’t,” Shamir corrected him. He knew what he knew. He believed what he believed.

Yes, he admitted without remorse, he had ordered the execution of Eliyahu Giladi, a rogue member of the Lehi, back in his underground days, insisting that there had been no alternative. The Stern Gang, which Shamir led after Avraham Stern was killed by the British, crossed lines that the more mainstream Jewish community in Palestine found abhorrent. The Lehi played a role, along with the Haganah and Begin’s Etzel, in the Deir Yassin massacre. Regarding their attempted assassination of Harold MacMichael, commissioner of the British Mandate, a wholly unrepentant Shamir later said: “There are those who say that to kill Martin (a British sergeant) is terrorism, but to attack an army camp is guerrilla warfare and to bomb civilians is professional warfare. But I think it is the same from the moral point of view. Is it better to drop an atomic bomb on a city than to kill a handful of persons? I don’t think so. But nobody says that President Truman was a terrorist.”

It’s good that many Jews struggle with the choices that leaders like Shamir and Begin and Ariel Sharon made. Yet a bit of humility is in order as we assess those who devoted their lives to building the Jewish state. Ours is not the world that Shamir and his generation inherited. Ours is a world in which the Jews are secure, and largely safe, in no small measure due to what those men and women did. Are we foolish enough to imagine that the British relinquished their hold on the colonies because early colonial Americans signed petitions? American Revolutionary heroes knew exactly what Shamir and others knew: The British would leave when the costs became too high.

The difference is that the American Revolution has the advantage of having unfolded centuries, rather than decades ago, so many of the disturbing details have been lost. But are we so naïve to imagine that there are not profound parallels and continuities between what unfolded in the 13 colonies in the middle of the 18th century and what happened in Palestine in the middle of the 20th?

Ben-Gurion, Begin, Shamir, and their generation, like Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and theirs, believed that freedom would come only with sovereignty and that sovereignty would come only with victory. No matter Labor or Likud, they all shared that belief—and they were all right.

For all the misgivings many now have about Shamir’s intransigence or his specific policies, part of his legacy is that Jews ought not to pretend not to know what, deep down, they know. Yitzhak Shamir knew what he had seen, both in Europe and then in the Arab world, and he knew what it meant. He was no less ambivalent about the Arabs than he was about the Poles and refused to vote for Begin’s peace treaty with Egypt. Presumably in deference to Begin, he abstained; but he made it clear that he thought Israel was paying far too high a price. Today, three and a half decades later, with the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Cairo, and with Israel now missing the Sinai as a buffer, who was wiser? Was it the Nobel Prize-winning Begin who’d turned peacemaker, or Shamir, who had not? Will the sword devour forever? Yes, Shamir sadly believed, it will. Is it possible that he was right?

・Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and Koret Distinguished Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His book, Saving Israel, won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award. His next book, The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness is Actually Its Greatest Strength, will be published this August.


itunalily2itunalily2 2012/07/07 17:01 "Tablet Mag" (
‘Shamir’s Greatest Legacy?’
On the late prime minister’s watch, over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel in a day and a half
By Stephen Spector|July 3, 2012 9:30 AM
As prime minister, the late Yitzhak Shamir authorized and oversaw one of the most dramatic mass rescues in recent history: the airlift of over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa to Israel in less than a day and a half in May 1991. The Israelis plucked the Falashas from imminent danger in that operation, flying them out of the Ethiopian capital at the climactic moment of a civil war, with rebel forces surrounding the city.
But the mission, which came to be known as Operation Solomon, was not a simple matter of rescuing Jews in peril. Less than two years earlier, the Ethiopian Jews faced no grave risk. To the contrary, they were safe in their villages in the Gondar region of the Ethiopian highlands, living much as they had for generations as tenant farmers and artisans. The Ethiopian aliyah had reached a crescendo with the secret Israeli airlift of the Falashas from camps in Sudan in 1984-85. But the Sudanese halted that mission after it was revealed publicly. Since then, the aliyah had slowed significantly, and by the late 1980s, the Ethiopian Jewish community was split in two. Almost every Jewish family in Gondar had relatives who had reached Israel and whom they had not seen in years. There seemed to be little prospect of reviving the immigration movement.
Then history took a turn. The Soviet Union was in the process of collapsing, and Mikhail Gorbachev told the brutal Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam that he would drastically cut back weapons shipments to the African nation. For Mengistu, this couldn’t have come at a worse moment: He was facing increasingly successful rebel advances against his army. In desperation, Mengistu turned to Israel, and in November 1989 he dispatched a trusted official to meet with Shamir in Jerusalem with the aim of renewing diplomatic relations.
Each side wanted something. Ethiopia wanted lethal weapons. Israel wanted to revive its former ties with Ethiopia, which had been a key ally, along with Iran and Turkey, in David Ben-Gurion’s Periphery Strategy. Jerusalem also wanted to gather in the remaining Falashas. The chief rabbinate had ruled that they were authentic Jews, and Israel had established their right to emigrate under the Law of Return.
According to Israeli diplomatic officials, Mengistu secretly promised to let 500 Ethiopian Jews leave the country each month. Israeli Foreign Ministry sources have revealed that Mengistu submitted a voluminous shopping list of materiel, including weapons―though the dictator always insisted that there was no connection between the arms and the aliyah. What Shamir actually agreed to is unclear, since the Israelis claim that more was promised than was actually delivered. (By early 1990, though, former President Jimmy Carter and the George H.W. Bush Administration accused Israel of having sent cluster bombs; a congressional report in February 1990 confirmed this.)
The United States demanded that Israel send no arms at all to a dictator with so much blood on his hands. Reuven Merhav, the director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said later that he had decided independently not to send arms to prop up Mengistu. The Ethiopian leader might use them on civilians, including the Falashas, Merhav reasoned. In any case, why arm him when he faced imminent defeat? Merhav proposed that Israel send food, economic aid, and medical assistance instead―and he offered to use his country’s influence with America to help Ethiopia. Prime Minister Shamir approved that policy and appointed Uri Lubrani as his special envoy to Addis Ababa. Lubrani had been ambassador to Ethiopia at the time of Haile Selassie, Israel’s representative to Uganda under Idi Amin, and Iran under the Shah. He had extensive dealings with dictators and had served Israel in impossible situations. It would be his job to negotiate the Falashas’ release with Mengistu.
However, shortly after the renewal of Israeli-Ethiopian ties, an American nonprofit organization called the American Association of Ethiopian Jews took steps to force Israel to act more quickly to enable the Ethiopian aliyah. Without consulting anyone (at least not officially) they dispatched agents to the Jewish villages in Gondar, urging people to come to Addis Ababa at once. They paid for trucks, buses, and boats to bring them down by the thousands. Others made their way on foot, or sold their possessions to pay for bus tickets and bribes. Once the migration began, none of the Falashas wanted to be left behind. They said later that they had risked everything because they wanted to go to Jerusalem. Their ancestors had yearned to go to Zion, and this was their chance.
Within months, nearly the entire Jewish community (as it was then recognized), some 20,000 people, made their way to Addis, a sprawling, impoverished shantytown already swollen with refugees from the long civil war. There was no sufficient infrastructure to accommodate them. Nor was there enough food, clothing, or medical services. The Ethiopian Jews expected the Israelis to reunite them with their children and other family members quickly. Instead, they became subject to international forces of which they were entirely innocent. Israeli and American officials quickly concluded that Mengistu had realized he could hold the Jews hostage in order to demand weapons from Israel. The Falashas thus became living chips in a game of international political poker in which the stakes were the Ethiopian government’s survival, and their own. Thousands of them spent up to a year or longer in degrading slum conditions. Many children died.
Against this background, Shamir authorized Lubrani to negotiate for the release of the Jews. Logically, this could not succeed: The Israelis could not give Mengistu arms, the one thing that he needed in order to survive. And yet it did succeed, at the last moment, as the Ethiopian government collapsed and the rebels stood ready to take Addis Ababa.
Israeli and American officials acted in concert. The U.S. National Security Council arranged for Mengistu to flee the country. President Bush 41 sent a personal appeal to the acting president of Ethiopia, urging him to make the “humanitarian gesture” of letting the Jews leave―in return for $35 million to be raised by the American Jewish community, as overseen by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Through the National Security Council’s intervention, the Ethiopian rebels agreed to stand down for 48 hours, long enough for Operation Solomon to take place.
With Shamir’s approval, the IDF and the Foreign Ministry had been planning the rescue for months, but now they had only one day in which to put their plans into effect. They removed seats from aircraft and called up pilots, troops, and doctors. The Jewish Agency opened and staffed 49 new absorption centers overnight (the existing absorption centers were already overflowing with immigrants from the Soviet Union).
Early on Friday morning, May 24, 1991, Shamir gave the green light and the mission began. Repeatedly through that day and night, Ethiopian officials threatened to abort the rescue―because nobody had notified the civil aviation authorities, because the $35 million hadn’t been transferred, then because the BBC had prematurely announced that the mission was underway. Through it all, Israeli officials negotiated and improvised―bribing bus drivers, police, and others. For 34 hours, a small armada of Israeli planes landed at the Addis airport, filled up with Ethiopian Jews, many of whom sat on floor mats, then took off into the thin air of Addis, and headed back to Israel―all without turning off their engines.
Shamir greeted the first plane to land at Ben-Gurion Airport. As hundreds of excited Jewish Agency workers, IDF and security personnel, dignitaries, and others, broke into spontaneous applause, Shamir declared of the Falashas: “They are the remnants of a Jewish community that lasted for thousands of years, who are now coming back to their country. … They have come back to their homeland.”
For the Ethiopian Jews, however, the challenges of life in Israel had only just begun.
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Stephen Spector, a professor of English at Stony Brook University, is the author of six books, including Operation Solomon: The Daring Rescue of the Ethiopian Jews (Oxford, 2005).

itunalily2itunalily2 2012/07/07 17:05 "Jerusalem Post"(
‘Column One: Shamir’s good, great life’
07/05/2012 21:35
It was not inevitable that Shamir became a strong, dedicated, successful leader; many in his generation were not.
There was something about Yitzhak Shamir, Israel’s seventh prime minister who passed away last Saturday, that made you feel shy, in awe when you stood in his presence. In his eulogy at Sunday morning’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu noted that Shamir “didn’t radiate charisma. He simply radiated inner strength.”

Shamir, the diminutive, taciturn leader, was a strong man. And Netanyahu was absolutely right, Shamir’s strength owed to his commitment to his convictions. What motivated him to act were not external conditions, but an internal compass, an internal call to devote his life to the Jewish people and our freedom and safety in our land.

Netanyahu began his eulogy to Shamir on Sunday morning by placing him in the context of his generation. Netanyahu said, “Yitzhak Shamir was from the generation of giants that founded the State of Israel.”

There is much truth in this statement. The generation of Jews that came of age in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s and established the State of Israel confronted challenges unmatched in human history. They survived the European Holocaust. They stood down and bested the British Empire. They withstood massive terror from the Arabs and repression and betrayal from the British. They defeated the invading armies of five Arab states with a ragtag force of Holocaust survivors and farmers, with little access to arms, and almost no money.

They carved a beautiful, modern country out of the rocks and sands of a long-desolate land.

They absorbed massive waves of aliya from all over the world. They brought together Jews with diverse customs, traditions and languages and reforged a unitary Jewish people bound to one another by our common heritage, faith, resuscitated language and land – all stronger than what divided us.

They suffered agonizing losses at every turn.

But they kept moving forward, sometimes in giant leaps, usually in tiny steps. But they kept moving forward.

So it is true that Shamir’s generation of Jews had more than its normal share of great men and women. But to do Shamir’s memory the justice it deserves it is important not to obscure his personal greatness by bracketing him inside his generation. This is true for two reasons.

First, it was not inevitable that Shamir became a strong, dedicated, successful leader.

Many in his generation were not.

Shamir faced enormous challenges. And his most serious challenges came from his fellow Jews. People like Chaim Weizmann – whom the late Benzion Netanyahu referred to as “a disaster for the Jewish people,” due to his chronic preference for British approval over Jewish national and legal rights – were more than willing to compromise away the national rights of the Jews to a state of our own in our historic homeland.

Indeed, in the years preceding Israel’s declaration of independence, national sovereignty was only perceived as a viable option and reasonable goal by a minority. As Shamir said in a 1993 interview published this week by The Times of Israel, in 1945 David Ben-Gurion called for the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth, rather than a sovereign Jewish state. As Shamir put it, “It was curious that the Zionist movement officially didn’t accept the slogan of a Jewish state as the aim of the Zionist movement!... Weizmann was against it....

He want[ed] Jewish unity here... not a state.”

LATER, DURING Shamir’s tenure as prime minister in the unity government with then-foreign minister Shimon Peres and the Labor Party from 1986 to 1988, Peres sought to undermine his leadership and bring about his defeat in the 1988 elections by collaborating with foreign governments against him.

According to top secret documents from 1988 first disclosed by Yediot Aharonot’s Shimon Schiffer in June 2011, Peres collaborated with then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to destabilize Shamir’s government. Peres also sought US assistance in subverting Shamir and fomenting his electoral defeat. Aside from that, in breach of both Israeli law and the expressed wishes of Shamir, Peres dispatched his emissary, then-Foreign Ministry directorgeneral Avraham Tamir, to Mozambique for secret meetings with Yasser Arafat.

Throughout his career, Peres, who is also a member of Shamir’s generation, has distinguished himself as a politician who prefers his personal gain over that of his nation. In keeping with this consistent preference, last month Peres traveled to Washington to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from US President Barack Obama, at the same time that Obama rejected Israel’s request to commute the life sentence of Jonathan Pollard. It is safe to say that Shamir would probably not have been offered such an award from a US president.

But it is also safe to say that had he been offered the award, Shamir would have used the occasion to publicly press for Pollard’s release.

The other reason it is wrong to view Shamir as a mere product of his times is because by doing so, we effectively say that there is no point in emulating him. If he only became the person he became because he lived through the times he lived through, then his story has nothing to teach us about what it means to lead, or to live a meaningful, good life in the service of a goal greater than ourselves. And this cannot be true.

In a poetic coincidence of timing, as Netanyahu eulogized Shamir on Sunday morning, Netanyahu’s immediate predecessor, Ehud Olmert, entered a courtroom in Tel Aviv for the start of his criminal trial related to the so-called Holyland Affair. Olmert is accused of taking bribes from the developers of the capital’s architectural monstrosity cynically named “Holyland,” during his tenure as mayor of Jerusalem. He allegedly received money and other benefits in exchange for his willingness to allow the developers to expand the size of the project to more than 10 times the size initially allocated for it.

Olmert’s Holyland trial is only the latest of the ex-prime minister’s legal troubles. On July 10, the Jerusalem District Court will hand down its verdict on two other corruption scandals – the Talansky Affair, in which Olmert is on trial for accepting bribes and for campaign finance irregularities, and the Rishon Tours Affair in which Olmert is accused of doublebilling his travel expenses.

However Olmert’s legal travails pan out, the fact that he is facing corruption charges to begin with is wholly a function of his character.

Unlike Shamir, Olmert is perfectly prepared to abandon the public interest to advance his personal comfort. During his tenure as premier, rather than stand up to US pressure for Israeli concessions of land and rights to the Palestinians, Olmert preemptively capitulated.

He called for Israel to unilaterally surrender much of Judea and Samaria to the Palestinians, despite the latter’s rejection of Israel’s right to exist. He offered to carve up Jerusalem in his peace proposal to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. He continued to embrace the cause of appeasement despite Abbas’s preference for peace with Hamas over peace with Israel.

So too, during the Second Lebanon War, Olmert chose to lose the war, in a vain attempt to uphold his preference for appeasement over justice and victory. To that end, he accepted a cease-fire that left Hezbollah in charge of south Lebanon. That cease-fire led directly to Hezbollah’s takeover of all of Lebanon in 2007.

Olmert defends his behavior through a mixture of lies and self-justification. At The Jerusalem Post Conference in New York on April 29, Olmert claimed that the Second Lebanon War was the greatest military victory in Israel’s history. Apparently he thought we had forgotten about every other war Israel has fought. So, too, Olmert claims that he had no choice other than to submit to US pressure regarding the Palestinians.

SHAMIR’S RECORD is a standing rebuke of Olmert’s excuses for his failures. Yes, in two key instances, Shamir caved in to US pressure.

He did not respond to Iraq’s missile offensive against Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. And he agreed to participate in the Madrid Conference in 1991 where then-US president George H.W. Bush forced Shamir to hold negotiations on the basis of “land for peace,” with the Palestinians and the Syrians.

In both cases, Shamir’s acquiescence to American demands may have been unjustified.

Certainly he didn’t exact a high enough price for his sacrifice. Yet even these concessions did not change the situation on the ground.

Shamir did not agree to give the Arabs any land. And during his tenure the US significantly upgraded its strategic ties with Israel.

Moreover, from the perspective of Israel’s long-term viability and prosperity, Shamir exacted the greatest concession Israel ever gained from the US. He convinced Bush to stop steering Soviet Jewish émigrés to the US and away from Israel. This ensured that one million Soviet Jews made aliya. The Soviet Jewish aliya fundamentally transformed Israel’s economy and demographic posture, and upgraded its strategic position. Whatever damage Israel may have incurred as a result of Shamir’s concessions to Bush was likely outweighed by his success in bringing Soviet Jews to Israel.

And it is true that Shamir was never beloved or even liked by the US government or the leaders of Europe. But it is also true that during his tenure in office major countries, including China and India, renewed their diplomatic relations with Israel.

By standing up for his country, he earned the respect of the world – not just for himself, but for Israel as a whole. And in international affairs it is far more important to be respected than liked.

In his obituary for Shamir, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner explained that Shamir was a successful leader because he was intelligent and tenacious.

Aviner noted that Shamir’s intelligence was hard-earned. He took the time to learn the details of every subject he had to contend with. He was a voracious reader and wanted to gather as much information as possible before he made decisions.

Shamir’s devotion to learning made it possible for him to intelligently weigh the costs and benefits of various courses of action.

Aviner wrote that Shamir’s tenacity was a consequence of his life experiences. He was the commander of the Stern Group (Lehi) guerrilla force in pre-state Israel. He was imprisoned and escaped, twice. He was a Mossad officer. At each stage of his life, he faced great challenges and overcame them.

And each experience steeled him for the next until he gradually became the force to be reckoned with he was as prime minister.

It is important to recognize that Shamir was the product not only of his times, but of his values and of the choices that he made throughout his extraordinary career. The greatest compliment one can pay another person is to say that he is a model to be emulated, and that his life should serve as an example for what a good life can and should be.

We were blessed to have had him as our leader. And his memory should be a blessing in the annals of Jewish history.


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