Yitzhak Navon

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - GLO­RIA TESSLER


AL­THOUGH HIS role was l a r g e l y c e r e mo­nial, the pop­u­lar and mod­est Yitzhak Navon, who served as Is­rael’s fifth pres­i­dent from 1978 to 1983, was ded­i­cated to heal­ing rifts be­tween Arabs and Jews. He was par­tic­u­larly out­spo­ken af­ter the Sabra and Shatilla mas­sacre, in Septem­ber 1982, by the Chris­tian Le­banese Pha­lange dur­ing Is­rael’s in­va­sion of Le­banon.

When more than 400,000 demon­strated in Tel Aviv de­mand­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the mur­ders, Navon aban­doned pres­i­den­tial diplo­macy and in­sisted that un­less Me­nachem Be­gin’s gov­ern­ment took up the call he would re­sign. Be­gin duly ap­pointed a ju­di­cial in­quiry un­der Supreme Court pres­i­dent Yitzhak Ka­han, which re­sulted in the re­moval of Ariel Sharon as De­fence Min­is­ter, while clear­ing Is­rael from direct re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Gen­er­ally praised as one of the most like­able peo­ple in Is­raeli pol­i­tics, Navon was de­scribed by Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu as “one of the na­tion’s finest and among its great­est builders”. The Is­raeli premier also paid trib­ute to his bridge build­ing be­tween Is­rael and its Arab neigh­bours, es­pe­cially Egypt, fa­cil­i­tated by Navon’s flu­ency in Ara­bic and also Ladino.

Navon was also an au­thor and play­wright, whose work deal­ing with his own Sephardi her­itage in­cluded the

Yitzhak Navon (

with ( ac­claimed mu­si­cal Sephardic Gar­den. This her­itage helped unify the coun­try at a time of in­tense po­lar­i­sa­tion be­tween Sephardi im­mi­grants and the Euro­pean Ashke­nazi elite, bedrock of the coun­try’s found­ing fa­thers.

Itzhak Navon en­tered Is­rael’s for­eign ser­vice just af­ter the State was es­tab­lished in 1948. He served as chief of staff to Is­rael’s first prime min­is­ter, David Gu­rion, be­com­ing one of Ben Gu­rion’s clos­est aides, and later to his

cel­list Rostropovich, Lil­ian and Vic­tor Hochauser and PM Ed­ward Heath suc­ces­sor Moshe Sharett. He headed the Arab di­vi­sion at the Ha­ganah’s in­for­ma­tion sec­tion dur­ing the War of In­de­pen­dence and held diplo­matic posts in Ar­gentina and Uruguay. He was first elected to the Knes­set in 1965 into Ben Gu­rion’s Rafi Party, one of the pre­cur­sors to the Labour Party, which in­cluded Shi­mon Peres, Moshe Dayan and Teddy Kollek.

Born into a lead­ing Sephardi Jerusalem dy­nasty, his fa­ther’s fam­ily had ar­rived in Pales­tine from Con­stantino­ple in the 17th cen­tury. His mother was of Moroc­can de­scent, of whom it was said that an an­ces­tor was urged by the prophet Eli­jah in a dream to em­i­grate to Is­rael. He stud­ied Ara­bic and noted in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Itzhak Navon, All the Way, pub­lished in He­brew this year, that at the time Jews and Arabs en­joyed a good re­la­tion­ship.

Navon at­tended the re­li­gious school Doresh Zion and grad­u­ated in Is­lamic cul­ture, Ara­bic and He­brew lit­er­a­ture at the He­brew Univer­sity. In 1963 he mar­ried psy­chol­o­gist Ofira Erez, and in that same year, when Ben Gu­rion re­signed the premier­ship, he was ap­pointed head of the Ed­u­ca­tion and Cul­ture Min­istry. Not­ing the high level of Jewish il­lit­er­acy, he drafted hun­dreds of women sol­diers to teach adults in new set­tle­ments to read and write and made Ara­bic manda­tory for Jewish pub­lic school stu­dents.

In 1978 he was elected the first Sephardi pres­i­dent. Two years later, af­ter the Is­rael Egypt peace treaty he vis­ited Egypt as the of­fi­cial guest of Pres­i­dent An­war Sa­dat. He left pol­i­tics in 1992, one year be­fore Ofira died.

For­mer Labour col­league Raphael Cohen-Al­magor, who edited sev­eral books coun­ter­ing anti-Zion­ist lit­er­a­ture in the late 1990s, in­vited Navon to write a chap­ter on his pres­i­den­tial role.

In it he de­scribes how he had given much thought to how Mus­lims, Chris­tians and Jews could live in friend­ship and un­der­stand­ing, even at a time of armed con­flict be­tween Is­rael and the Pales­tini­ans. Vis­it­ing neigh­bour­hoods and city sub­urbs, schools and re­mote vil­lages, Navon was “cap­ti­vated by the com­plex and amaz­ing hu­man mo­saic of peo­ple”.

He wrote: “The pres­i­dent will not solve their prob­lems but he lis­tens, he is a con­duit to ex­po­sure.” Yitzhak Navon is sur­vived by his sec­ond wife, Miri Shafir Navon, his daugh­ter, Naama, his son, Erez, and grand­chil­dren.

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