Yitzhak Navon, Jerusalem’s native son

Modern Israel doesn’t have a king, but the president is pretty close.

Yitzhak Navon (left) with Shimon Peres, after Navon presented Peres with a copy of his autobiography. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yitzhak Navon (left) with Shimon Peres, after Navon presented Peres with a copy of his autobiography.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It was not surprising that when the country’s fifth president, Yitzhak Navon, held the official launch of his autobiography, All the Way (in Hebrew), last month, he chose to do so in the North African Jewish Heritage Center.
Located in Jerusalem’s Mughrabi neighborhood – better-known as Mamilla – the building is on a plot of land that Moroccanborn Rabbi David Ben-Shimon purchased in 1867. Originally a house of study, synagogue and home to poor Jewish families of North African origin, it was renovated with the help of philanthropist David Amar and master craftsmen brought in from Morocco to create authentic mosaics.
The Jerusalem-born Navon, who was present at the center’s dedication in June 2011, is what is known as a samech-tet, or Sephardi tahor – meaning he is a direct descendant of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. As president, he brought enormous pride to the country’s Sephardi community. Indeed, it was a year after Navon’s presidential term concluded that the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef established the Shas Party in 1984.
Baghdad-born author and Israel Prize laureate Eli Amir, who came to Israel with his family in 1950 at age 13, was one of the speakers at the book launch. He noted that Navon had been the first Sephardi to reach such high office in the State of Israel, as distinct from the Land of Israel: “We Mizrahim [Sephardi and North African Jews] were treated like dirt, and all of a sudden there’s a Sephardi president and a crack in the glass ceiling.”
Amir – who also served as an Arab affairs adviser to the prime minister and director-general of the Jewish Agency’s youth aliya department – was still a teenager when he got to know Navon, who was then private secretary to founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion. Completing his high school education at night, Amir worked as a courier by day and regularly brought dispatches from the Foreign Ministry to the Prime Minister’s Office, which he delivered to Navon personally.
Amir was just one of many prominent guests who attended the launch, which brought together political and cultural icons from Jerusalem and around the country.
THE 94-YEAR-OLD Navon, the youngest child of Miryam and Yosef Navon, was born on the first day of the month of Nisan.
When he was an infant, his mother would sing him a song in which she referred to him as the king of the Jews – because the first day of Nisan is, according to Jewish tradition, the new year for the kings of ancient Israel.
Modern Israel doesn’t have a king, but the president is pretty close.
Unlike today, when a president can serve only one seven-year term, the term at the time of his presidency was five years, with an option to serve a second round. He opted to return to politics.
In fact, Navon, a former Labor MK, is still active politically, and was No. 120 on the Zionist Union list in this year’s election. Although the ranking was merely symbolic (since the Knesset only has 120 members), the former president said he was honored; he had readily agreed because he believed in Labor’s principles and was pleased the party had integrated so many young people among its veterans.
In a video clip during the evening, he related that his mother had been illiterate, but that when he was sent to join Israel’s diplomatic mission in Argentina, she had decided to learn how to read and write so she could correspond with him. That in itself was meaningful to him, but even more so was that her letters were splattered with oil or other food drippings, as she had written them while cooking.
It was his mother’s effort to become literate that inspired him, some 15 years later, to introduce a program that enabled adults with little or no schooling to acquire an education.
Though best known for his roles as president, secretary to Ben-Gurion and education minister, Navon – who is fluent in Arabic – was also active in the Arabic department of the Hagana prior to the state’s establishment. He was later political secretary to foreign minister Moshe Sharett, and headed the prime minister’s bureau under both Sharett and Ben-Gurion.
After leaving the Prime Minister’s Office, he directed the cultural division of the Education and Culture Ministry for two years. He then became a founding member of the Rafi Party, and was elected to the Knesset. Later, with the disintegration of Rafi, he returned to the Labor Party and was chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. He served as education minister from 1984 to 1990.
Among his own contributions to Israeli culture are two musical plays: Sephardic Romancero, which he wrote in 1968, and Bustan Sephardi, which he created in 1970.
Veteran Jerusalem-born singer and actor Yehoram Gaon, who is also a samech-tet, was the moderator at the book launch. Gaon, one of several Israel Prize laureates in the auditorium, recounted that when he had appeared in one of the many productions of Bustan Sephardi, Navon – who had been sitting in on rehearsals – asked to see him privately in the dressing room, and informed him that some of the singing was at the wrong tempo. When the actor emerged from the dressing room, everyone in the cast crowded around him, wanting to know what Navon had said. Gaon feigned a “state secret” situation.
Gaon – who hosts a weekly radio show on current affairs – also disclosed that after each broadcast, Navon would send him a written critique. For Gaon, this was akin to receiving criticism from a surrogate father; his own father was a teacher who had been pedantic about the correct grammar and pronunciation of the Hebrew language, and was forever correcting his son.
After he died, Gaon missed him terribly – and he took comfort in Navon’s taking over the job, in a sense, of correcting his Hebrew.
Navon is also fluent in English, Yiddish and Spanish, and he heads the National Authority for Ladino. When he started elementary school, his father enrolled him as early as first grade in an Arab school, so that he would learn to speak Arabic in the manner Jerusalem Arabs did.
Amir recalled that when Navon visited Egypt in 1980 as the guest of president Anwar Sadat – making him the first Israeli president to visit an Arab state – he won the hearts of the Egyptian public with his flawless Arabic.
When he was still a boy, his father and their Arab landlord would often sit together, chatting in Arabic and cursing the common enemy – the British Mandate authorities. The young Navon had Arab friends and neighbors, and holds a certain nostalgia for that era of coexistence.
HE ALSO has a gift for maintaining relationships, and among the many people who congregated at the launch were friends of his youth, scions of pre-state Jerusalem’s Sephardi community, former Labor Party colleagues, and many people with whom he had developed personal or professional connections along the way.
One of these was historian Ami Gluska, who had been his military attaché and private secretary, and later continued in the same position with sixth president Chaim Herzog, father of opposition leader Isaac Herzog, who was also present.
The attendee who probably came the longest distance was Kamal Mansour, a Druse Israel Prize laureate from Usfiya, who has been an adviser on minorities to many presidents. Mansour was also an Arabic speechwriter for Navon and former foreign minister Abba Eban.
There were people from the “Jerusalem Parliament” that meets on Fridays at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, as well as Israel Prize-winning poet Haim Gouri. Also spotted was Dalia Goren, who had worked as a secretary for Ben- Gurion, and Haim Cohen, chairman of the association responsible for the North African Jewish Heritage Center’s renovation and operation. Cohen is also a former secretary-general of Labor’s Jerusalem branch.
Conspicuous by his absence was ninth president and former Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, who was in the capital but attending another event. Peres and Navon are not only former political colleagues, but good friends.
However, Peres didn’t need to attend the launch, because he was already familiar with the book, which Navon had personally presented to him at the Jaffa-based Peres Center for Peace. Peres was also familiar with many of the episodes in the book, from long before Navon began to write the autobiography.
Meanwhile, current President Reuven Rivlin – another multigenerational Jerusalemite – was very much in attendance, saying that as someone whose family had come to Jerusalem in 1809, he felt like a new immigrant compared to Navon’s family, which has been living in the capital since 1670.