Remembering Yitzhak Navon, Israel’s fifth president

Navon was regarded as a gentle father figure, yet he could be tough and outspoken on issues he perceived to be unjust.

Former president Yitzhak Navon (photo credit: KNESSET)
Former president Yitzhak Navon
(photo credit: KNESSET)
Israel’s fifth president, Yitzhak Navon, died at home in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday after a long illness. He was 94.
Navon will lie in state at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem Sunday morning where the public may pay its respects. Eulogies and the burial service will be at Mt. Herzl at 12 p.m.
He had been hospitalized on and off at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center for several months and was on dialysis.
Nevertheless, in June, he came in a wheelchair from the hospital to the North African Jewish Heritage Center for the launch of his autobiography, All the Way.
A twelfth generation Jerusalemite, Navon’s father’s family was expelled from Spain in 1492 and first went to Turkey, before settling in Jerusalem in 1670. He was also a multi-generational Jerusalemite on his mother’s side, whose family, which included renowned kabbalist Chaim Ibn Attar, came to Jerusalem from Morocco in 1742.
Navon had a multi-faceted and fascinating career.
A Hebrew University alumnus who specialized in Hebrew literature and Islamic studies, he later contributed to Hebrew literature himself as a playwright and author.
He was fluent in Hebrew, Arabic, English, Spanish, Ladino and Yiddish.
His excellent Arabic served the state-in-the-making in good stead when he worked as an intelligence agent for Shai, the precursor of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) in the pre-statehood era. He initially joined the Etzel pre-state Jewish resistance group, but after a brief period switched to the Hagana.
Following the establishment of the state, Navon served in the Israeli embassies in Argentina and Uruguay, and on his return home became the personal secretary of the nation’s first foreign minister Moshe Sharett.
He subsequently became political adviser to founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion, who wanted to learn Spanish because someone had given him a book on Spinoza in Spanish, and Ben-Gurion, who disdained a Hebrew synopsis, wanted to read it in its original language.
Navon was his teacher and, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post prior to Rosh Hashana 2012, said that after that Ben-Gurion wanted to read Don Quixote in the original and Navon helped him with that, as well.
Always interested in education, Navon, in 1963, became the director of the cultural division of the Ministry of Education and Culture, and two years later threw his hat into the political ring and was elected to the Knesset on the Rafi list, which later merged with the Labor Party.
On April 19, 1978, 10 days after his 57th birthday, Navon was elected Israel’s fifth president, the first native son to serve in the position. He was followed by two other sabra presidents – Ezer Weizman, who was born in Tel Aviv, and present president Reuven Rivlin who, like Navon, was born in Jerusalem.
What also distinguished Navon from his predecessors was that he was the first Sephardi president and the first president with small children.
Navon represented a fusion of nobility and a man of the people. There was something verging on the aristocratic in his bearing, and yet he was completely approachable and interacted easily with all strata of society. Regardless of any position he held at any given time, he loved to stroll through the capital’s Mahaneh Yehuda market and purchase a falafel or a pita, eat it in front of the purveyor, and say it was the best he ever tasted.
Navon was regarded as a gentle father figure, yet he could be tough and outspoken on issues he perceived to be unjust.
Although the position of president is largely ceremonial, Navon prompted the dismissal of then defense minister Ariel Sharon, when he called for a judicial commission of inquiry into the Sabra and Shatilla massacre by Christian Phalangists during the first Lebanon War in 1982.
At the launch of Navon’s book, fellow Sephardi singer and actor Yehoram Gaon, the moderator for the evening, said Navon had been almost like a surrogate father to him.
Gaon’s father was a teacher who was very particular about the correct usage of Hebrew.
Navon, who in his soul was an educator, was even more meticulous about pronunciation and grammar, and used to send notes to Gaon after the latter’s weekly radio show in which he either commended him for avoiding mistakes or gently admonished him for having erred with a specific word or sentence.
While all the presidents of Israel came from a political background, including the two who had not been members of the Knesset, Navon was the only one who returned to politics.
At the time he was president, it was possible to serve two five-year terms, but he declined a second term and returned to politics.
Enormously popular among both Jews and Arabs, Navon said on more than one occasion that there are Jews who don’t want to see any Arabs living in Israel and there are Arabs who don’t want to see any Jews living in this land – but such thinking on either side is pointless, because both sides are destined to live on the same stretch of territory.
The Arabs loved him because he spoke to them in their own language and was genuinely concerned about their welfare.
But it wasn’t only the Israeli Arabs who loved him. While still president, he visited Egypt with his first wife, Ofira, who died of cancer in August 1993, as the guests of president Anwar Sadat, who told him afterwards that he had captured the hearts of the Egyptian people.
The Jews loved him because he was so accessible and because they knew he cared. In fact, his son, Erez, in an interview on Israel radio on Saturday, said that until his dying day, Navon was worried about the future of the state and its citizens.
Navon’s popularity was such that he was prevailed upon in 1983 to run for the chairmanship of the Labor Party.
He declined, doubting that he would win enough votes to beat Shimon Peres, aside from which they were friends of long standing and he didn’t want to run against him.
Many years later, when walking his daughter Naama’s dog near his home in Jerusalem, he chanced to meet a Jerusalem Post reporter to whom he said: “Do you know why dogs are man’s best friend? It’s because they’re not in politics.”
Navon was reelected to the Knesset in 1984 and was appointed minister of Education and Culture and deputy prime minister.
After going into so-called retirement in 1992, he became head of the National Authority for Ladino. He was also in demand as a public speaker.
Of his plays, the best known are Romancero Sephardi and Bustan Sephardi, which romanticize the life of the Sephardi community in Jerusalem at the time of Navon’s youth.
Leading figures who eulogized him following the announcement of his death were unanimous in praising him as a builder of the nation, a diplomat, a man of culture and wisdom, a politician, a great president and a humanist.
Rivlin described Navon as a man of spirit and action, who as a Jerusalemite and son of Jerusalemites strove to preserve Jewish-Ladino traditions. Rivlin said Navon unhesitatingly expressed what was in his heart.
Israel’s ninth president, Peres, who like Navon had been a lifelong disciple of Ben-Gurion’s and whose close friendship with Navon spanned more than half a century, said Navon had been his friend heart and soul, and that he had been a beloved president and teacher whose contribution to the state would not be forgotten.
Several weeks prior to the launch of his autobiography, Navon, while still able to walk unaided, had visited Peres to personally present the book to him.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced deep sorrow at the passing of Navon and said he had been a full partner in shaping the State of Israel as a free and democratic state.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, whose father Chaim Herzog succeeded Navon as president, emphasized that Navon was among the builders of the national homeland. He was also proud of the fact that in the last Knesset election Navon had agreed to officially be the 120th candidate on the Knesset list of the Zionist Union.
Navon is survived by his second wife, Miri Shafir, his children, Naama and Erez, and several grandchildren.