The Blog

'Israel’s Grittiest Founder'

3:34 PM, Jul 3, 2012 • By DANIEL HALPER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Daniel Gordis remembers former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir in Tablet

About a year ago, I was standing with Yitzhak Shamir’s son at a reception in the Tel Aviv area. Yair Shamir [1] looks a great deal like his father; blink and it’s easy to imagine that you’re speaking with the former prime minister, who died this past Saturday at 96. I don’t recall everything Yair and I discussed at that reception, but I do recall how the conversation ended. We were both standing there, glasses of wine in hand, and Yair said to me: “People ask, ‘Must the sword devour forever?’ And the answer is ‘Yes, it will.’ ”

I was dumbstruck.

I was moved, first, by the ease with which some secular Israelis still glide into biblical idiom. After all, Yair could have said, “People ask, ‘Will peace never come?’ ” But he didn’t. He cited the verse, ha-lanetzach tochal cherev, a verse from Samuel II in which Abner, the commander of King Saul’s army, calls out to Joab, who led David’s forces, begging him to bring the fighting between them to an end.

But I was no less struck—and even disturbed—by the ease with which Yair simply answered “yes.” In the American, suburban home in which I was raised, we were taught that war was an aberration. Conflict is solvable. If war persisted, then both sides had been less bold than they needed to be. If Americans and North Vietnamese wanted to, they could figure out a way to end the conflict; the same was clearly true of Jews and Arabs.

It was one of the great principles of liberal Jewish American life, and I believed it with every fiber of my being. At least I did when we moved to Israel some 14 years ago.

Yair’s off-handed but startling comment, one his father surely would have made, was a reminder of what has undoubtedly been the single most difficult dimension of making aliyah—learning to accept, however grudgingly, that the moral assumptions of my old life are wholly inapplicable to the place my family now calls home. The Middle East is not a Hebrew-speaking version of the comfortable, safe, conflict-free suburban Baltimore in which I’d been raised. I had moved, Yair unintentionally reminded me, from the land of Jeffersonian optimism to the land of hard-edged biblical realism. “Yes,” this scion of Israeli royalty said to me in a way that no American probably ever would, “the sword will consume forever.”

The death of Yitzhak Shamir, one of Israel’s gritty, less-celebrated heroes, is a reminder to many of us immigrants that along with the larger houses and seemingly all-pervasive civility, what we had to leave behind was a distinctly American optimism, wholly foreign to the political reality in which we now find ourselves. When I went to the Knesset today to pay my last respects to one of the nation’s founders, I found myself musing on the brusque honesty to which we were saying goodbye. We’d love some of that upbeat American optimism. Shamir would probably have enjoyed it as well; he simply wasn’t willing to pay the price of self-delusion.

Whole thing here.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers