James G. Smart

What was most remarkable about Yitzhak Shamir's life was how little his thinking changed from his youthful days as a member of Betar (1929-33), the Zionist brown shirt organization in Poland, where he was born Yitzhak Yezernitzky, to his last days in Israel at age 96.

As a Betari youth he was greatly influenced by its founder, Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder also of "Gun Zionism" or, more euphemistically, "Revisionist Zionism."

Jabotinsky's vision, the same as Zionism founder Theodor Herzl's, was "a Jewish majority in a Jewish state in the whole of the biblical Land of Israel." Jabotinsky, however, realized that this had to be accomplished by force, just as European countries established their colonies by force. "This made sense to me," Shamir wrote commenting on Jabotinsky's ideas.

In 1939—four years after he migrated to British Mandate Palestine—Shamir met the chauvinist Avraham Stern, head of the terrorist Stern Gang. According to Stern, "Rights were awarded only to the strong, who are allowed to take them by force if they are not given to them legally."

The group declared England as the enemy and made advances to Nazi Germany for an alliance. "The establishment of the historic Jewish state on a national and totalitarian basis, bound by a treaty with the German Reich" was part of the proposal a Stern representative made in 1941 to the German minister to Beirut. Shamir omitted this episode in his autobiography.

The racism of the group was strong. One member, Uri Greenberg, referred to the Arabs as "the filthiest people in the East." Such comments were common in the gang. Considering the Arabs, even all non-Jews, as equals was not in their thinking.

Shamir therefore had no trouble in approving the assassination in 1944 of Lord Moyne (Churchill's friend). Dr. Amitsur Ilan claimed Shamir was the "prime mover" behind the assassination.

Shamir also was one of three terrorists who blew up the King David Hotel in 1946, killing 88. To escape detection, he disguised himself as a rabbi, with a "full black beard, and long kaftan." He forgot, however, to trim his eyebrows. A street detective recognized the eyebrows under the black felt rabbi's hat and captured him. Shamir was then imprisoned, escaping after two years. He murdered his own colleague, Eliahu Giladi, because of disagreement.

Even more memorable were Shamir's involvements in the attack on the small village of Deir Yassin and the murder of Swedish U.N. mediator Count Folke Bernadotte, both in 1948. The Deir Yassin attack occurred five weeks before a single Arab army became a belligerent. The high number of elderly, women and children killed indicated racist wantonness. Among the 280-some dead were 30 infants. "I saw cut off genitalia and women's crushed stomachs," reported investigator Zvi Ankori. There were no wounded.

Even though Bernadotte had saved an estimated 30,000 Jews from the gas chambers during World War II, his "crime" was his effort to have Transjordan excluded from Zionist claims. For this he was assassinated.

Such deeds brought world attention to Shamir and his gang. Besides these headliners, Shamir estimated that his group carried out about 300 other "actions," with himself as participant in 41 of them.

After the war Shamir was at a loss. What to do? He learned that Israel's secret service Mossad needed men with "special abilities acquired by such formerly 'wanted' men as myself," he wrote. "It changed my life." Explained Shamir: "I felt at home very soon: I had returned to an atmosphere, behavior, incentives and points of view that were in many ways, familiar to me." Now all his former activities were done with establishment approval.

As head of Mossad Shamir not only protected Israeli citizens, but also "Jews abroad." He not only vowed to make "unforgettable object lessons in the reality and reach of the Jewish state," but claimed a right to interfere in the internal affairs in every other nation state in the world. It seems preposterous. But it is a reality even today. Witness the recent assassinations of law-abiding Iranian scientists—deemed, without trial, of course, to be enemies of Israel.

Israeli historian Benny Morris wrote that as Mossad head Shamir ran mostly "ad hoc operations, usually involving assassinations." This was the secretive kind of life Shamir loved. I was "a naturally un-talkative man," he wrote. "I preferred to work behind the scenes."

According to Israel Shahak, the late noted Israeli humanist, under Shamir's premiership (1983-84 and 1986-92) Israel was "governed like a dictatorship." "Everything happens as he says," Shahak observed. Shamir was not interested in the budget or the poor. He focused almost exclusively on the military and on foreign affairs, and particularly on Washington, DC.

Colonizing Palestinian lands—the chief cause of the "Arab-Israeli conflict"—was, according to Shamir, "sacred work; it cannot stop; it is the heart of our existence and life." Giving the Palestinians anything was unacceptable. Talking peace was wasting time.

Accordingly, Shamir turned down George Shultz's peace plan of 1988 and James Baker's the following year. During congressional testimony Baker sarcastically told Shamir: "Take this number: (202) 456- 1414. When you're serious about peace, call us."

The boon in Shamir's life was Ronald Reagan. The two established the "joint military political group," which entwined the U.S. and Israeli military establishments to such an extent that our own sovereignty was, and still is, compromised.

For him Reagan lifted the ban on cluster weapons, which Israel used against the Lebanese. Shamir also got an agreement on duty—free trade—plus $1.7 billion in military aid and $900 million in economic aid.

In addition, wrote Reagan biographer Richard Reeves, "Reagan and Shamir concluded one agreement after another—most secret, some unwritten." Shamir got so much that his friends back in Israel asked, "Well, where's the kitchen sink?"

Not surprisingly Shamir continued his racist attitude toward Palestinians into his premiership. At the beginning of the first intifada (uprising) in 1987 he called the Palestinians "grasshoppers." When asked about it, he repeated it on television, "Yes, grasshoppers; you need to stomp on 'em every once in a while."

After retiring in 1992 he enjoyed the status of adviser and elder statesman. Of subsequent leaders, he said, "I had encouraged and groomed almost all of them." He mentioned future Prime Ministers Ehud Olmert and Binyamin Netanyahu in particular.

Indeed, judging by Israel's current practices and the growing popularity of "transfer," Yitzhak Shamir not only trained subsequent leaders but converted Avraham Stern's minority views of the 1940s, including the racist ones, into the views of a majority of Israelis today. 

James G. Smart is professor emeritus of history at Keene State College in New Hampshire.