Pinchas and the legacy of Yitzhak Shamir

Yesterday – 10 days in the Hebrew month of Tamuz – was the anniversary of the death – the yartzeit – of Yitzhak Shamir, our seventh Prime Minister who sat in office for eleven long and terribly grey years, overseeing a strategy of political inertia and diplomatic sluggishness that wittingly or otherwise paved the way for the disaster called Oslo.

How appropriate it was that the Torah portion which we read yesterday related the story of Pinchas whom the Biblical narrative casts in the role of the kana’aee, the extremist or the fanatic, who resorted to murder, unauthorized and brutal murder, in order to restore order to the encampment.

Yitzhak Shamir was a kana’aee.  Alone among our Prime Ministers, Yitzhak Shamir repeatedly and consistently exhibited the determination of the fanatic, the willfulness of the zealot.  He was so ferociously attached to his ideals and principles that he would not bend nor waver even when confronted by overwhelming logic, even when faced with overwhelming power.

During the period of the rotation government, Yitzhak Shamir warned Rabbi Ovadya Yosef of the Hareidi Shas Party that the Rabbi should be aware that he was a man of principle – ani ish ikronot – who would not bend to anyone else’s will, even at the cost of loosing his government.  And so it was!  Rabbi Yosef commanded the Shas Party to support Shimon Peres and the Labor Party during the brouhaha over the incident which is called the stinking maneuver.  The government fell and the nation went to early elections.

Similarly, when the President of the United States, George Bush the Elder, compelled Shamir to choose between building settlements in Judea and Samaria and receiving American loan guarantees to help pay for the cost of the massive Aliya from the former Soviet Union, Shamir sided with the Land of Israel, leaving the immigrants to fend for themselves, at least for a while.

Yitzhak Shamir developed his kana’aut – his fanaticism – long before he entered the Office of the Prime Minister of the Jewish State.  In fact, during the pre-State era, when Yitzhak Shamir was just a young man, he already exhibited the kana’aut for which he later became famous.  As one of the three leaders of the Lehi underground, Yitzhak Shamir authorized Lehi’s refusal in the early 1940’s to suspend the war against British Imperialism despite the fact that at that time the British stood alone fighting the Nazi beast.

So committed was Shamir to the inside-out logic of  his position – to the anti-British ethos of his kana’aut – that during the war Shamir participated in a meeting in Beirut hosted by Lebanon’s semi-fascist Phalange Party and attended by a representative of the fascist government of Benito Mussolini.  The purpose of the meeting was to explore the possibility of establishing a pro-fascist independent Jewish State in occupied Palestine.  The meeting yielded zero political results.  But it polished Yitzhak Shamir’s self-image as a kana’aee.  This quality of kana’aut was also on display in the now famous story of Shamir’s execution of Eliyahu Giladi, a comrade-in-arms who fell out with the Lehi leadership.  And I have no doubt that Shamir’s kana’aut helped propel his career as a Mossad agent during Israel’s formative years.

But as the Torah teaches us in the Pinchas narrative, the value of kana’aut is not derived from the principles upheld by the kana’aee and certainly not from the dedication with which the kana’aee tends to those principles.  Rather, the value of the kana’aut is determined by the peace which always follows in its train.  For this reason, God bestows upon Pinchas the covenant of peace as the reward for his zealotry.

And that tells us all that we need to know about the value of Yitzhak Shamir’s kana’aut.  His zealotry yielded not a bounty of peace but the unmitigated disaster of the Oslo Accords.  In the wake of Shamir’s tenure, another Yitzhak, Yitzhak Rabin acceded to the Prime Ministry.  And in just a few short months, this other Yitzhak replaced the fanaticism which inspired Shamir’s political and diplomatic inertia with a comprehensive program for our wholesale retreat from Judea and Samaria.

During his decade in power, Yitzhak Shamir worked diligently to obstruct the Camp David Accords, making a mockery out of Menachem Begin’s autonomy plan for the Arab residents of Judea and Samaria.  Shamir failed to authorize a single formal or informal economic or political structure calculated to integrate the Arab residents of Judea and Samaria first into the Israeli economy and then into the Israeli polity.  Instead, he remained a loyal partisan of the racialist orientation toward the Arabs of eretz yisrael which the Israel Labor Party first adopted in the pre-State period and then vigorously maintained during their 30 years in power.

During the first Gulf War, when he had the opportunity to topple the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and thus end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on terms favorable to Israel, just as Begin had intended when he signed the Camp David Accords, Shamir did nothing.  Why?  Because a Palestinian State on the east bank of the Jordan would yield both peace and Israeli sovereignty over all of Judea and Samaria, if and only if the Palestinians on the west bank of the Jordan would be granted Israeli citizenship.  And for Yitzhak Shamir, citizenship for the Arabs, equality between the Jews and the Arabs of eretz yisrael, was unthinkable.  As he once bluntly put it, “the river is the same river and the Arabs are the same Arabs.”

In other words, the principles upon which Yitzhak Shamir’s kana’aut were grounded were the principles of the Israel Labor Party – which probably explains his good work for the Mossad while David Ben Gurion served as Prime Minister.  All that differentiated Shamir from the “card carrying members” of the Israel Labor Party was that he was a kana’aee.  As my friend Michael from Texas often put it, “Shamir was a flaming socialist.”  And so, in the wake of his kana’aut came the Oslo Accords, signed by Yitzhak Rabin but created by Yitzhak Shamir. And let us never forget that the Oslo Accords almost succeeded in writing finis to the Jewish State.

The above portrayal of Yitzhak Shamir’s political legacy is not friendly.  But it carries an important lesson for those of us who are still committed to ideal of Greater Israel.  Saying no is not a policy; standing pat is not a program!

May this aspect of Yitzhak Shamir’s legacy be a blessing to us all.

About the Author
Avi Berkowitz teaches history at the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University, and serves as the Rabbi of the Minyan HaVatikim in the Rimon section of Efrat. He holds a PhD from Columbia University in International Relations, with a specialty in Middle East studies and received his Rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchick. Prior to coming on aliyah, he served as the rabbi of the Community Synagogue in Manhattan's East Village, taught history at the Ramaz Upper School, and was an adjunct Assistant Professor of political science and Middle East studies at CUNY