State’s 5th president, Yitzhak Navon, turns 90

A multi-generational native son of Jerusalem who has given expression to his Sephardi roots in his writings and in his work.

Yitzhak Navon 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yitzhak Navon 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Yitzhak Navon, who served as the nation’s fifth president, celebrates his 90th birthday on Shabbat. According to the Hebrew calendar, Navon, who was born on the first day of Nisan, turned 90 on Tuesday.
His Gregorian calendar birthday is on April 9.
A multi-generational native son of Jerusalem whose family has lived in the city for more than three centuries, Navon, who is of distinguished Sephardi descent on both his father’s and his mother’s sides, was born in 1921.
He can trace his ancestry back to 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain, and has given expression to his Sephardi roots in his writings and in his work as head of the National Authority for Ladino.
He also chaired the committee of the public council that organized the program for the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and was involved in the reconciliation efforts between Spain and Israel, signing the first cultural agreement between the two countries.
In the context of the 500th anniversary, under the auspices of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, Navon starred in an eight-episode documentary Out of Spain 1492, in which he guided viewers to historical sites deep into the heart of Spain, revealing what remains of Jewish landmarks.
He has been a frequent guest at events hosted by a series of Spanish ambassadors and will no doubt meet with Spanish Crown Prince Felipe when the latter visits Israel next week within the framework of the 25th anniversary celebrations of diplomatic ties between Spain and Israel.
President Shimon Peres, during his visit to Spain in February, urged Prince Felipe of Asturias and Princess Letizia to follow the example set by King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia, who visited Israel years ago.
In June 2003, then-foreign minister Ana Palacio took time out from the World Economic Forum to come to Israel on behalf of King Juan Carlos to bestow a medal on Navon in recognition of his contribution to Israel-Spanish relations and to the revival of Ladino culture.
From 1946-1948, he headed the Hagana’s Arab section.
Soon after the state came into being, he was sent to South America as second secretary in Israel’s diplomatic mission to Argentina and Uruguay.
Following his return to Israel in 1951, he was appointed to serve simultaneously as political secretary to both Moshe Sharett, who was then foreign minister, and to then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion.
He was the first president of Israel to pay an official visit to Egypt, where he impressed his hosts with his fluent Arabic, and is the only president of Israel who returned to politics after completing his tenure in the presidency.
Navon was initially elected to the Knesset in 1965 and remained an MK till 1978, serving in various capacities, including as deputy speaker and chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
In 1972 he was elected to the chairmanship of the Zionist General Council for a five-year stint.
In the days when Navon was president, the law permitted two five-year terms of office instead of one seven-year term, as is presently the case.
Though an extremely popular president, Navon opted not to run for a second term and returned to the political arena, planning initially to run for the leadership of the Labor Party. In the final analysis, he decided not to run against Peres, but did run in the Knesset elections and then served for almost four years as deputy prime minister and minister of education and culture in the national unity government.
Even after Labor left the government, Navon continued to serve as education minister till 1990. After completing his term in the 12th Knesset and overseeing the arrangements for events related to the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Navon decided that he had enough of active politics.