Yitzhak Shamir, a founding father and two-time Prime Minister of Israel (1983, 1986-1992), died on June 30. He was given a state funeral and praised as an outstanding patriot by virtually every Israeli political leader of prominence, including Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he had fought politically. Interestingly, in praising him his daughter took the opportunity to stick it to the current leadership: “(My father) belonged to a different generation of leaders, people with values and beliefs. I hope that we have more people like him in the future.”
There is no question that Shamir was a patriot and a brave man, who essentially dedicated his life to serving his county. But of course the same could be said about Adolph Hitler, and while Shamir is certainly not in the same league as the man who murdered his family, life does reveal that Israeli patriotism can accommodate serious brutality. As in the days of the First Temple, when the Lord of Hosts often expected His people to treat their neighbors with utter barbarity, so too in modern Israel does serving the country sometimes involve behavior generally condemned by democratic societies.
Shamir was born in 1915 in a Jewish village in Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire, became a Polish citizen after the Russian-Polish war of 1920 and moved to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1935. There in 1940 he joined the Irgun, a paramilitary organization fighting the British, and when it split into two factions a short time later, he went with the more extreme Lehi, also known as the Stern Gang after its leader. Financing themselves with bank robberies, the group was so anti-British that it actually had talks with the Nazis and proposed a Jewish state based on fascist principles. After Stern was killed in 1942, Shamir became one of the leaders of Lehi, which gravitated towards the USSR, declaring in 1944 that it supported a national bolshevism (whatever that is). While under Shamir’s leadership Lehi assassinated the British Resident Minister in Cairo in November of 1944 and subsequently engaged in terrorist acts both in Palestine and the UK, tactics which Shamir justified with references to the Old Testament. He was arrested by the British in 1946 but escaped and found political asylum in France, where he was when the state of Israel was established in 1948.
Shamir immediately returned to Palestine and Lehi, which teamed up with the Irgun in March for an attack on the Arab village of Deir Yassein. The Irgun was then led by Menachim Begin, another future Prime Minister (1977-1983), whose group had blown of the King David Hotel in 1946, killing 103 people, many of them Jews. In the Deir Yassein operation over a hundred villagers were killed, many of them women and children, and according to the later testimony of an Irgun fighter 80 prisoners were executed. The massacre was condemned by the two chief rabbis in the area, by the leadership of the Haganah and even by Ben-Gurion, but no one was punished. Then, in September of 1948 Lehi assassinated the UN mediator, Folke Bernadotte, fearing his peace proposals would surrender coveted territory. This was too much even for the Israeli provisional government, since during the war Bernadotte had rescued some 30,000 inmates from Nazi camps, about 10,000 of them Jews. Lehi was declared a terrorist group and its members arrested, only to be pardoned the following year. In 1980, seemingly as part of the sanitizing of the country’s origins, Israel created a military decoration, the Lehi ribbon, becoming the only democratic state to officially celebrate a terrorist organization.
After the war for independence Shamir served from 1955-1965 in the Mossad, where he could indulge his penchant for assassination. He entered politics in 1977, and in 1983 the one-time terrorist became the Prime Minister of Israel. And there he would wield his righteous sword against a new group of terrorists, this one seeking to end the Israeli Mandate in Palestine.
The irony is neverending.