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Israelis You Should Know: Yitzhak Shamir

Israeli PM Yitzhak Shamir picking grapes in vineyard (Photo: Maggi Ayalon/GPO)

Lived: October 22, 1915 - June 30, 2012

Known for: The seventh Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir served as a military leader and politician before and after the establishment of the modern Jewish state.

Why you should know him: Born Yitzhak Yezernitsky in a Jewish village in what is now Belarus, Shamir later moved to Poland where he studied at a Hebrew high school and joined a Zionist youth movement. His law studies in Warsaw were cut short when he made aliyah (immigrated) to what was then British-mandate Palestine in 1935. Shamir's family was not so lucky, as his parents and two sisters were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Shamir's father, realizing that the Nazi extermination of the Jews was underway, once said, "I have a son in the Land of Israel, and he will exact my revenge on them."

In the Holy Land, Yitzhak changed his surname to Shamir, which he told his wife means a thorn that stabs and a rock that can cut steel. He met his wife Shulamit when she made aliyah from Bulgaria, and the couple would have two children, Yair and Gilada.

Working in an accountant's office, Shamir joined a Zionist paramilitary group that opposed British control of the Holy Land, spending the 1940s fighting for a Jewish state. Arrested by British authorities in 1946, a year later Shamir escaped by digging a 200-foot tunnel. He was rearrested, but soon granted asylum in the newly independent state of Israel in 1948.

In 1955, Shamir joined the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, for which he worked for ten years. He directed Operation Damocles, which stopped German rocket scientists who were working on Egypt's missile program. He also ran a unit that placed Mossad agents in hostile countries, created the Mossad's planning division, and served on the agency's General Staff.

In 1973, Shamir was elected to the Knesset, Israel's parliament, as a member of the Likud party. He became Speaker of the Knesset in 1977, Foreign Minister in 1980, and succeeded Menachem Begin as Israeli Prime Minister in 1983.

As Prime Minister, Shamir faced many challenges, including Israel's situation following the 1982 Lebanon War, American calls for restraint during the Gulf War, and reestablishing diplomatic relations with several dozen nations in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere.

Shamir worked hard to help Jews from around the world make aliyah, including Operation Solomon (the airlifting of 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel) and bringing many Soviet Jewish refugees to their biblical homeland, as well.

Retiring in the 1990s, Yitzhak Shamir ended up as Israel's third longest-serving premier, after only David Ben-Gurion and Benjamin Netanyahu.

After suffering from Alzheimer's disease for many years, Shamir died in a Tel Aviv nursing home in 2012 and was buried at Mount Herzl. Israeli luminaries spoke out about this man who spent his life serving the Jewish state and her people.

Shimon Peres called Shamir "a brave warrior for Israel, before and after its inception." Benjamin Netanyahu added that Shamir "was part of a marvelous generation which created the state of Israel and struggled for the Jewish people. And as Shamir's body lay in state, Reuven Rivlin said:

"You're cast stone, Isaac, unbreakable. Bearing on your shoulders the burden of this nation the past and the future. Remembering in your heart the ashes of the crematoria and the hope of redemption...in the name of the state of Israel, we bow our heads to you. You were dedicated to the people all your life, and now 'from duty be released only by death'...you'll be interred in the ground of Jerusalem, the ground of this good land, for which you have lived and fought."

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