Yitzhak Shamir and leadership

Martin Kramer delivered these remarks to a dinner of the Board of Governors of Shalem College (then in formation), Jerusalem, July 9, 2012. Present was board chairman Yair Shamir, whose father, the Israeli leader Yitzhak Shamir, had passed away on June 30. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

In recent days, much has been written and said about Yitzhak Shamir, which is ironic, as Yitzhak Shamir was very taciturn and said little. The response to his passing has been nothing short of remarkable. He is now remembered by many with nostalgia as an ideal leader: determined, resolute, unyielding, principled. It says something about the moment we are in: as the “new Middle East” melts away, and even the bedrock peace with Egypt seems to shake, so Yitzhak Shamir is regarded rather wistfully as the kind of leader we need today.

I’ll leave it to others to elaborate on Shamir’s qualities. I would only add that the qualities he exhibited as a political leader—the tenacity, the resolve, the certitude in the way chosen—are precisely the qualities that enable political prisoners to endure exile and incarceration without losing hope. Yitzhak Shamir was exiled by the British empire to one of its most desolate outposts, Eritrea, in the hope of isolating and breaking him. He endured, escaped, made his way back home, and resumed his struggle.

Prison and exile leave an imprint often more lasting than study and reflection. They are a flame that forges character, and we see that in figures from Natan Sharansky to Nelson Mandela. Yitzhak Shamir came through that same flame. As far as I know, no one has written a book about political prisoners who became heads of state. In such a book, Yitzhak Shamir would deserve a prominent place, along with Menachem Begin.

Experience left him with a remarkable set of personal qualities. But as I always tell students, leadership isn’t a personal quality. It’s a relationship. For leadership to be successful, there must also be followers—persons who are in a symbiotic relationship with the leader. And so the interesting question isn’t only Yitzhak Shamir’s unique qualities, but why he so resonated with the Israeli public that he became the second-longest serving prime minister of Israel, after Ben-Gurion.

My summer interns are doing some work for me on Abba Eban, which gives rise to this reflection. Eban and Shamir were both born in 1915, only months apart. In one respect, they were similar: they were both outliers, Eban by his origins, Shamir by his politics. But otherwise, they were total opposites. During World War Two, Eban rose to the rank of major in the British Army; Shamir promoted attacks on British officers who were Eban’s colleagues. When the Lehi assassinated Swedish mediator Count Bernadotte, Eban was sent to represent Israel at his funeral. Shamir was always suspected of involvement in the assassination. Politically, of course, they were separated by the widest of gaps.

Eban was famously loquacious, a veritable talking machine. Someone once gave this tongue-in-cheek account of Eban’s oratorical style: “His speeches proceed with such an unbroken flow of admirable phrases that one awaits in a state of delighted incredulity the consummation of his eloquent sentences in which one sinuous clause takes up from its predecessors the elusive thread of the argument he is weaving, the shuttle of his words flying ever faster till he shakes out suddenly, like a conjurer’s silk handkerchief, the finish fabric of his speech.”

Shamir, by contrast, was extraordinarily taciturn, a man of few words. My friend Robert Satloff, who runs The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, shared this story with me, and I share it with you, Yair, as you may not have heard it.

The Institute rented out the St. Regis Hotel in the mid-80s to host an event with Shamir. 300 people filled the ballroom. My task was to prepare some questions for the Q/A session and plant them around the room. Shamir comes and delivers his usual remarks. 9 minutes total. Then we start Q/A and he runs through one question after another with olympic speed. (It doesn’t take long to say “no” — which he did better and with more frequency than anyone I ever met.) So, after a total of 28 minutes, Shamir exhausted every question (and every questioner) in the room. And we paid for a full hour!

Now if one had been situated in 1960 or 1970, and had to bet which of the two men would become prime minister of Israel, Eban would have been the obvious choice. If you’d been an American Jew, it wouldn’t even have been a question. The Encyclopedia Judaica first appeared in 1970. It devoted a column of print to Eban; Shamir didn’t even have an entry. Eban was an international icon, a hero of public diplomacy; Shamir worked in the shadows, spending years in secret operations.

Eventually both men served their county as foreign minister—but that’s as far as Eban got. The explanations are many, and there’s an element of accident and happenstance. But nothing in history is ever pure accident. There was something in Yitzhak Shamir that resonated in the Israeli people—something that made his brand of leadership appealing.

Future historians will debate what it was, but I’ll venture a preliminary guess: he personified an Israeli determination to stand firm against pressure. As a small country in a hostile neighborhood, Israel is always under pressure, from enemies and friends alike. There are many strategies to alleviate pressure—diplomacy, negotiation, concessions. Eban practiced them like a maestro. The problem is that these strategies often just invite more pressure. Shamir practiced a different strategy: simply make it self-evident that pressure will never work. This touched something deep in the Israeli psyche—and gave him a trusting following that transformed him into a national leader.

His policies can and will be debated, as will his legacy. But his strategy has proven itself. He didn’t reach it through profound study, just through the personally observed behavior of human kind. And this brings me to my final point.

There’s nothing particular in the career of Yitzhak Shamir that endears his memory to our project, Shalem College. He studied only sporadically; he learned what he knew from the school of life. Abba Eban collected 20 honorary doctorates from universities; Yitzhak Shamir collected two or three (and each time, the award excited protests). But his life poses the question we hope to answer. That’s because no young Israeli will lead such a life again. No young Israeli will be sent into exile as a political prisoner, driven underground to live under a false identity, be pursued by the armies of an empire. And it’s a good thing no young Israeli will live such a life, because we’re now a sovereign people.

In sovereign states where young people are protected and nurtured, which life experiences can begin to substitute for the tests imposed by the absence of sovereignty on an earlier generation of Jews? Since we’re not going to send our young people to a hole in Eritrea, or have them go to war with the crude tools of an underground militia, what other rigorous tests can we impose?

That is the mission of Shalem College. At some point, every stable and secure society must ask how it can mold leaders through some method other than adversity. The answer everywhere has been the rigors of a demanding education. We won’t see the likes of Yitzhak Shamir again, because the history that forged him is past. But we owe it to him, to ourselves, and to the Jewish people, to put our best young people to an exacting test, and so build them to be worthy successors of the founders. We’re grateful for the life of Yitzhak Shamir—and resolute in our determination to forge the successor generation with different tools, made possible by the privilege and power that comes with Jewish sovereignty.