By David IsaacYitzhak Shamir passed away June 30. He played a leading role in driving the British from Eretz Israel. As one of the triumvirate of Lehi, under the nom de guerre Michael (he admired the Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins), Shamir was in charge of carrying out operations.
Lehi, a Hebrew acronym for “Fighters for the Freedom of Israel,” was an underground organization founded by Avraham Stern. Stern had been a member of the Irgun, an underground group inspired by Revisionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky. Stern broke from the Irgun when it called for a truce with Britain during World War II in deference to the larger war against the Nazis. Stern disagreed with this policy and started Lehi.
Shmuel writes in “Days of Fire” (W.H. Allen, 1968):
Stern’s own thesis was simple. The future of the Jews would be decided by the struggle for independence in Palestine. The obstacle to independence was not Germany but Britain, and any truce with Britain meant a cessation of the fight for independence. It meant allowing Britain to pursue her policy to remain in control in Palestine. Therefore Britain remained the enemy.
Lehi thus had the distinction for a time of being the only group actively fighting British rule in Palestine. Lehi was the smallest of the undergrounds. It was also the least restrained. As Shmuel writes, “The restraints self-imposed by the Irgun to avoid human casualties were never accepted by Lehi.”
In February 1942, Stern was killed by the British ‘while trying to escape.’
Leaderless, hunted from pillar to post, their ranks thinned and thinning, the faithful remnant of Stern’s followers, by dint of a desperate determination, kept together a nucleus of the organization. … Within eighteen months of Stern’s death, Lehi, still small, but resolute in its purpose, had become an important force. Its literature bore the imprint of the intellectual capacity of its leaders – Nathan Friedman-Yellin, Yisrael Scheib and Yitshak Izernitsky [Shamir], all disciples of Stern in prewar Poland. (“Days of Fire,” W.H. Allen, 1968)
Shmuel belonged to the Irgun, which was a much larger organization than Lehi and would have a much bigger role in driving the British from Palestine. The two organizations, which shared a common purpose, would eventually work together once the Irgun joined the fight.
Without the active Jewish resistance of the Irgun and Lehi, the State of Israel would probably not have come into being. Their role was decisive in driving up the cost of British occupation. As Shmuel writes in “They Hunted Us Like Animals” (The Jerusalem Post, May 1, 2007):
[T]he British government’s complete failure to find an answer to [Jewish underground operations], had by now created a climate of defeat in Britain, both in the press and in parliament, where Churchill kept repeating the slogan ‘Beat them or get out.’
In September 1947, the British government, after bringing her problem to the United Nations, announced that it was leaving Palestine. Britain did so on May 15, 1948, thus setting the date for the birth of the State of Israel.
The official Zionist leadership, represented by the Jewish Agency, did not take part in underground activities. For years it adopted a policy of havlaga, or self-restraint, in which Jews did not seek reprisals even against Arab attacks. Shmuel writes in “Days of Fire”:
Dr. Weizmann in his memoirs, published twelve years later, wrote: ‘Violence paid political dividends to the Arabs while Jewish havlaga was expected to be its own reward. It did not even win official recognition.’ Looking back, the Agency’s persistence in this suicidal policy seems fantastic.
The one area where the Jewish Agency seemed to have no qualms about violence was against the very forces bringing about an end to British rule. One of the reasons is that the Agency, led by David Ben-Gurion, felt threatened by the underground groups which rejected official Zionist authority.
The sharpest opposition to the Irgun attacks … actually came from the official Jewish organizations. The violence of their attack in their newspapers was matched by the imaginative catalogue of their charges. Nihilists, maniacs, charlatans, Fascists, murderers, bandits were the familiar terms used in the spate of speeches, articles and resolutions that poured out throughout 1944 against the Irgun and the Lehi. …
The propaganda was effective, especially in the rural areas where Irgun literature did not penetrate. Many accepted the image of the Irgun (and the Lehi) as a band of “criminals” and “Fascists” consciously “stabbing Zionism in the back” by aiming at the overthrow of Jewish authority. (“Days of Fire,” W.H. Allen, 1968)
The Agency would eventually do a major about-face. It had reasoned that once a new British government came to power everything would be different. But when a British Labor government was elected it turned out to be, if anything, still more oppressive. The Agency’s thinking was proven bankrupt. It had no choice but to turn to violence or face the loss of its authority. Its military arm, the Haganah, which had basically sat on the sidelines, joined the Irgun and Lehi in the united Tenuat Hameri (Resistance movement) in 1945.
But the Agency and Haganah leaders weren’t made of the right stuff and when the British rounded them up, arresting the Agency leadership and some 4,000 Haganah members, their will was quickly broken.
As Shmuel explains in “Days of Fire,” the reason for their collapse was deep-rooted.
The rejection by the Jewish Agency leaders of the thesis that the British regime was the enemy of the Jewish people stemmed not only from the promises by British politicians of a change of policy and their belief in the Labor leaders, but from a long-developed subservience to Britain, a sense of inexorable British mastery in Palestine. They were quite incapable of imagining themselves rebelling against British rule.
Only when it was obvious that the British Mandate was coming to an end did the Jewish Agency leaders change their tune. Ben-Gurion now condemned the British regime, called for its liquidation and declared that the British were waging “a war on the Jews.” Shmuel writes:
He gave no reason for his past collaboration with the predatory power he now considered illegal. His speeches had their own purpose: to place on record, before it was too late, that he too had demanded that the British leave Palestine. …
With the departure of the British, Begin and his comrades were obviously not to be allowed to reap the political rewards of the Irgun war on British rule. Ben-Gurion was to be acclaimed as the man who had forced the British to leave.
Ben-Gurion was successful in this hoax. In one of history’s ironic twists, he would become the first, and longest-serving, prime minister of a state won by the fighting men and women of organizations he had done his best to destroy.
Ben-Gurion continued to demonize the Irgun and Lehi throughout his political career. In Knesset debates he would not even refer to Menachem Begin by name, instead using the formula “the person who sits next to Member of Knesset Badar.” And while this would have seemed incredible when Ben Gurion was in his ascendancy, the people of Israel would eventually vote Begin and then Shamir to the highest position in the land.
Shamir served twice as Israel’s prime minister. The man most stubborn in facing the British proved to be most stubborn in defending Israel’s rights. He championed Jews living in Judea and Samaria and when asked about land for peace liked to say that Israel had already given up 80 percent of its land — the part that is now Jordan.
Shamir will long be remembered for his tenacity, courage and dedication to the people of Israel and its land.