Israel’s Fifth President Yitzhak Navon was laid to rest on Sunday in the national civil cemetery on Mount Herzl that is reserved for leaders of the state. He was buried alongside his first wife Ofira who died of cancer in August 1993.
Initial reports of Navon’s death stated that he had died on Friday, and later reports claimed that he had died in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday.
The matter was clarified at the graveside by his son Erez, who emphasized the importance in Jewish tradition of someone dying on a Friday night. In certain Orthodox Jewish circles it is believed that a soul that departs this world on a Friday night or on the eve of a Jewish holy day goes straight to Heaven.
Due to the fact that Navon died on the Sabbath in his home in Jerusalem, funeral arrangements could not be made until members of the Ministerial Committee for Symbols and Ceremonies could be contacted and convened after the Sabbath.
There was some dispute as to whether the lying in state ceremony prior to the funeral should be held at the Knesset or at the official residence of presidents of the state.
The reason for the dilemma was that unlike any of his predecessors or successors, Navon who had come from the political arena to the presidency, returned to politics after completing his term as president.
In the final analysis, it was decided that Navon’s casket would be brought to the President’s Residence and carried from the hearse to the catafalque by a Knesset Honor Guard, two members of which would continue to flank the flag draped casket until it was time to leave for the funeral service. The two members of the Knesset Guard were in turn flanked by two members of the Military Rabbinate of the Israel Defense Forces.
The casket was brought in by six members of the Knesset guard followed by Navon’s family.
Outside in the garden area, someone had placed a few stems of red flowers alongside a bust of Navon in the row of statues of past presidents of the state.
Rivlin, after placing a wreath at the base of the catafalque, said that he remembered that at Navon’s 80th birthday, Navon had said that he had always prayed to reach the age of 80, but having done so he wanted to sit back quietly, so that no-one would look down from above and say ‘he’s still there.’ Addressing Navon who died at age 94 after a long illness, Rivlin said: “Yitzhak, we wanted you to stay longer.” Rivlin noted that time after time Navon had been at the crossroads at a most crucial period. Rivlin also credited Navon with turning the residence of the president into the house of the nation. Rivlin then turned around and embraced Navon’s wife Miri, his son Erez, daughter in law Hamutal and daughter Naama.
Seats were then brought out for the mourners and members of the public began to file past the casket to pay their last respects.
The first to do so was Prof. Jonathan Halevy, the director of Shaare Zedek Medical Center where Navon had been hospitalized on and off for many months.
After that there was a slow trickle of people, mainly from Navon’s peer generation, but suddenly at around 10.30 a.m. the pace picked up and by the time that the chief cantor of the IDF intoned the verse from Ethics of the Fathers, traditionally recited at funerals: “Know from whence you come and where you are going and before whom you have to give a full account of yourself ,” the reception hall was packed with people among them former president Shimon Peres, former foreign minister David Levy, actress Gila Almagor and her husband Yaacov Agmon, poet Haim Gouri, singer and actor Yehoram Gaon, television, radio and stage personality Yossi Alfi, actor and stage director Tzedi Tzarfati, writer Eli Amir, historian Ami Gluska who had been Navon’s military attaché and many other prominent personalities as well as many who were unknown to the public.
At Mount Herzl huge tents had been set up – one for the family and various dignitaries, and the other for journalists and the general public.
Although Chief Rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau were present, they had no role in the service.
After the casket had been lowered into the grave and covered with earth poured from sacks that had been prepared in advance, Gaon said that Erez Navon had told him that he regarded Gaon as his father’s older son. Gaon conceded that in a way this was true because he had consulted Navon on everything, and had been emotionally moved to sit with him and listen to his wisdom. He dreaded being criticized by Navon, he said, and he took every bit of praise as a supreme compliment.
Gaon recalled that he had been the Master of Ceremonies at Navon’s 80th birthday celebration, after which Navon had written him a note offering reciprocity. “When it’s your turn,” he had written, “I want to be the Master of Ceremonies – whether from here or from above.”
Gaon regretted that it would have to be from above.
Rivlin recalled sitting with Navon at the launch a few months back of Navon’s autobiography. He remembered with what pride Navon had spoken of his roots –“ deep roots that bind a person to his country, his homeland, his people, his heritage and his traditions.”
Relating to the long period in which Navon had worked with founding prime minister David Ben Gurion, Rivlin said that Ben Gurion had thought that Zionism and the rebirth of the nation had begun with the Second Aliya, but Navon had much more far reaching roots than that.
Rivlin, who is a seventh generation Jerusalemite said that Navon used to jest with him and call him a new immigrant in relation to the long history in Jerusalem of his own family.
Even though he might be a new immigrant in comparison to Navon, Rivlin conceded, what they both shared was a love of Jerusalem. From his own standpoint, said, Rivlin, he was proud to be a ‘new immigrant’ alongside Navon.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, just a short time before leaving for Washington, eulogized Navon by saying that he had not only lived to an advanced age, but he had lived with a good reputation. “He was the jewel in the crown of Jerusalem,” said Netanyahu. “He knew Jerusalem’s neighborhoods like the palm of his hand and wrote about the city with humor, wit and grace.”
Until Netanyahu’s younger son Avner was in fifth grade, Netanyahu had never seen a production of Navon’s famous musicale Bustan Sepharadi. He was totally charmed by the school’s production and later contacted Navon to tell him how impressed he and his wife had been. Navon had thanked him with controlled emotion.
Another connection between Netanyahu’s family and Navon, the prime minister said was in relation to his father’s expertise on the history of the Jews of Spain, from the Golden Age through the Inquisition and the tragedy of the expulsion, on which he had written extensively. Netanyahu had frequently discussed his father’s writing with Navon, whose family could trace its journey from Spain to lands of exile and eventually to Jerusalem.
Navon believed that the foundations of the state lay in unity amongst ourselves, mutual responsibility and unity between Jews and non-Jews said Netanyahu. “He was a man of peace – peace among ourselves, and peace with our neighbors.”
Like Rivlin and Netanyahu Peres also spoke of Navon’s attachment to and pride in Jerusalem, but also of his popularity. “He was a president who warmed the hearts of his people” said Peres, adding “he was the president of the people, not just of the state.”
Inasmuch as Navon served the interests of the Hagannah in his youth, said Peres, “he pursued peace all his life.” In reference to Navon’s gift for languages, Peres said that he used his fluency in Arabic as a bridge to Israel’s neighbors.
Of all the positions that Navon held, Peres singled out that of education minister as the one that gave him the most joy, because it enabled him to conquer ignorance and to inculcate the nation’s youth with the proper use of the Hebrew language.
Peres said that his joint efforts and close relationship with Navon for more than fifty years bordered on brotherhood and that he would miss him terribly.
Navon’s second wife Miri Shafir said she was grateful for the privilege of having spent twenty years of her life with him and to be in the position of witnessing how much love all strata of Israeli society had for him, because they knew that he cared abut them. He was a true democrat, she said, respecting all people and all cultures. He was pained by racism, discrimination, violence, abusive language and extremism.
She was constantly fascinated by the rare combination of nobility and folksiness that she found in his personality, she said.
They had frequently discussed developments in Israel and Navon had believed with all his heart that peace was attainable, declared his wife. “You never lived to see it, but you never lost hope,” she said.
Her wish was for future young leaders to emulate Navon and to unite the people rather than divide them.
Navon’s daughter Naama, said she had a private father and a public father. Her private father never missed PTA meeting, and even when he was Education Minister sat opposite the teacher, only to hear that his daughter was not doing as well as he would have liked. Her private father took her to the dentist and held her hand because she was scared. Her private father showed her the beauty of religion rather than thrusting the burden of it on her, and also taught her and her brother to learn things by heart so that they would remember them. He also taught them to recite in Arabic and unfailingly corrected their Hebrew, because he wanted it to be absolutely right. Her public father, though a modest man, was a statesman who believed in truth, integrity and setting a personal example, she said. He had also taught his children that no matter how bad things may be, one had to look for the good and the beautiful in everything and to remain eternally optimistic.
Erez Navon in illustrating the extent to which his father had been a man of the people, said that he had found a letter in his father’s archives in which someone had been pleasantly surprised to see how much the Navons were like everyone else. Every year they used to go on trips with the Society for the Protection of nature and they behaved just like everyone else – picnics on the grass, listening to the guide, getting on the bus with everyone else with the president’s official car trailing behind.
“In every place we went,” Erez Navon said of his father, “You stood among the people and not over them. You introduced yourself to people who didn’t know you, simply as Yitzhak. You were an oasis of tranquility in a sea of extremism, and you would never ask of others, something that you would not do yourself. Your life was one of mission.”