Ben-Zvi, Yitzchak

(1884–1963)
   Second president of Israel, 1952–63. The man who in 1952 succeeded Dr Chaim WEIZMANN as president of Israel was little known abroad, though a respected veteran of the Israel labour movement. Unassuming and studious, his character fitted the wooden pre-fab structure that served as the presidential reception rooms during the whole of his tenure of office. To him the most valuable possessions in it were his books and manuscripts, and the most interesting visitors were the representatives of Israel’s mosaic of Jewish and non-Jewish communities and sects. His life was intertwined with the more robust personality of David BENGURION, the prime minister while he was president. They both arrived in Palestine in the same year, 1907, as eager young Zionist socialists - Ben-Gurion from Poland, and Ben-Zvi from the small market town of Poltawa in the Ukraine. Ben-Zvi’s father was active in the Chovevei Zion (‘Lovers of Zion’) movement, and came on a mission to Palestine in 1891. Yitzchak finished high school and was admitted to the University of Kiev, but his studies were interrupted soon after by the Russian Revolution of 1905. He headed the local Jewish self-defence group in Poltawa and managed to escape to Vilna, when the police unearthed a small store of arms hidden in his home. His father was exiled for life to Siberia but in 1922 was released and reached Palestine; Yitzchak’s brother and sister were imprisoned for a while. After coming to Palestine Ben-Zvi was immediately drawn into party activities, and missed the experience of work on the land, from which Ben- Gurion and other pioneers were to graduate. He attended the Eighth Zionist Congress at The Hague in 1907 and in the same year the First World Conference of Poele Zion, which elected him the party representative in Palestine. In 1909 he organized Ha-Shomer, the self-defence organization, in Jaffa. From 1910 he worked on the first Hebrew socialist newspaper, Achdut. For the better continuation of his work for the yishuv, Ben-Zvi, together with Ben-Gurion and others, decided in 1913 to go to Constantinople to study law. The outbreak of World War I brought them back to Palestine. At first Ben-Zvi advocated a pro- Turkish stand but when the persecution of Zionists and Jewish nationalists began after the failure of the Turkish offensive in Egypt, Ben-Zvi and Ben-Gurion were arrested and later deported. They reached Cairo and proceeded to the United States, where they started the Hechalutz organization in the US. Both joined the American battalion of the Jewish Legion, and arrived in Egypt in 1918 in time to serve in Allenby’s forces.
   In the Mandatory period after the war, Ben-Zvi devoted himself on behalf of the Labour Party, Mapai, to the affairs of the Va’ad Leumi, the Jewish National Council of Palestine, established in 1920. He served as chairman of the council from 1931, and was made president in 1945. On the establishment of the state, he was a Mapai member of the Knesset until elected president.
   In 1918, Ben-Zvi married Rachel Yanait (b. 1886), a fellow-worker in the Zionist Labour Movement, in Jewish self-defence, and on the paper Achdut. Trained as an agronomist before settling in Palestine, she became known in the field of education. She helped found the Hebrew Gymnasium in Jerusalem, and was the founder and director of a girls’ agricultural school in the Talpiot quarter of the city.
   Ben-Zvi had a lifelong interest in the history and customs of different Jewish groups in the Near East. He collected a mass of material about them and wherever possible maintained direct contact with their leaders. He was a recognized authority, for instance, on the Samaritans and the Karaites. His research also extended to non-Jewish minority groups in Israel, and to the early history of the yishuv, particularly in the Ottoman period. On all these matters he wrote extensively. In 1948 he founded the BenZvi Institute to promote such studies. A memorial foundation, Yad Yitzchak Ben-Zvi, began in 1965 to re- publish his collected books, articles, diaries and letters.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

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