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Notes from the NNLS/ZF Israel 60th Anniversary celebrations

The Story of Israel's Creation

Yitzhak Navon (former president of the State of Israel)

Those without the desire to read a very long post indeed may wish to skip the lengthy biography that appeared on the flyer for this talk.

Yitzhak Navon was born on Rosh Hodesh Nissan 5681, April 9 1921, in Jerusalem. On his father's side, he is was a descendant of the Jews who were expelled from Spain and who came to Jerusalem from Turkey in 1670. On his mother's side, Navon is descended from the Ben-Atar family of Morocco, who came to Jerusalem in 1884.

As a graduate of the Hebrew University in Pedagogy, Islamic culture and Arabic language and literature, he was a teacher for several years. During the War of Independence, he headed the Arabic Department of the Haganah in Jerusalem. At the end of the war, he served as second secretary at the Israeli embassy in Uruguay and Argentina.

In 1952, after serving as Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett's political secretary, Mr Navon was appointed Director of the Office of the Prime Minister to Ben-Gurion. He served in this position until 1963, when Ben-Gurion retired.

From 1963 to 1965, Mr Navon directed the Department of Culture at the Ministry of Education and Culture. In this position, he was the head of the campaign to "Eradicate Illiteracy", in whch hundreds of soldiers took part in teaching reading to adults living in the outlying areas and development towns. At that time, in a conversation with Education Minister Aran, he initiated the idea of establishing centers of culture, youth and sport—today's community centers (matnas).

In 1965, Navon was elected to the Knesset and was a member until 1978. He served for 7 years as the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and 4 years as chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee. During his term of office, in 1974, he monitored the implementation of the Agranat Commission Report on the lessons of the Yom Kippur War.

At the twenty-eighth Zionist Congress, Navon was elected chairman of the World Zionist Executive Committee. This gave him an opportunity to forge close ties with Jewish communities and organization leaders worldwide.

In all of these positions, Naon was guided by social issues such as demographics, concern for large families, education, a connection with the Jews of the Diaspora, and above all, reducing the gaps among people of different cultures and creating a bridge of understanding between them. This was in addition to his constant preoccupation with foreign and security affairs.

Yitzhak Navon was elected President of the State of Israel on the 12th of Nissan 5738, April 19, 1978. He conferred prestige and moral strength upon the office. His term in office was distinguished by a feeling of unity; his presidency added a dimension of simplicity and a true expression of love of all the people of Israel, no matter their ethnic origin.

In 1982, after the massacre in the camps at Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon, President Navon ddemanded that an official commission of inquiry be established to investigate the events. His opinion carried much weight in the government's decision on the issue.

President Navon chose to limit his travels abroad, but willingly accepted an invitation by the President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, to visit his country. On this history visit to Egypt, President Navon did much for Israel's image, and, as Sadat said, "He captured the heart of the Egyptian people." Another trip Navon made was to the United States, by invitation of President Reagan. President Navon met with members of the Senate and Congress, appeared at Jewish schools, and held important dialogues with Jewish leaders, in addition to attending rallies and press conferences.

In 1984, President Navon was re-elected to the Knesset for the Labor Party and served as Deputy Prime Ministr and Minister of Education and Culture until 1990. Navon admitted publicly that it had been a mistake to return to political life after having served as President. "Whoever wishes to be President must understand that in doing so, he is ending his political career," Navon said.

In the Ministry of Education, Navon was given the opportunity to assign special importance to scientific-technological education, as well as to the values of democracy and co-existence among ethnic communities and religions. President Navon was also active in promoting education in the Arab and Druze sectors and raising their conditions to those of citizens of the rest of the country. During his term of office, President Navon brought about an expansion of 30% in the study of Arabic. As Minister, Navon initiated the "Culture Package", which guarantees cultural and artistic experiences for every school child. He also introduced the practice of high school pupils traveling to Poland to learn about the Holocaust.

In 1985, as a member of the cabinet in the unity government, he was the only minister who opposed the release of 1,150 terrorists in exchange for three Israeli prisoners of war, in what was known as the "Jibril exchange."

As 1992 approached, President Navon agreed to take upon himself the chairmanship of the "Public Council for Marking 500 Years Since the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain." He also had a major role in creating the television series "Jerusalem which was in Spain", which retells the history of the Jews of Spain, of their glory and their suffering.

After retiring from public life, Mr. Navon served as chairman of public organizations that reflect his personality and interests: The Neot Kedumim Society, which reconstructs the flora mentioned in the Bible and Talmud, as well as the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem and the National Authority of Ladino Culture. In addition, Mr. Navon serves served as honorary president of "Keren Avraham" (the Abraham Fund), whose purpose it is to encourage understanding and co-existence between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

The goal of preserving the heritage of Spanish Jewry and introducing it to all communities in Israel was reflected in Mr. Navon's works, "Romancero Sephardi", a concern of sacred and secular music that was performed in 1968, and a year later in the play "Bustan Sepharadi", which deals with the life of a typical, previous-generation Sephardic family in Jerusalem. The play was awarded the Kinnor David prize in 1979, was revived by Habimah Theatre in 1998, and has been performed hundreds of times since then. Apart from these, Mr. Navon has written legends and short stories that revolve around the spirit of Jerusalem. Among his stories is "Six Days and Seven Gates", a story about "The Scroll of the Elders at the Western Wall." This story was recently distributed by the Ministry of Defense to IDF bereaved families. He also published a volume of articles by David Ben-Gurion under the name "Be-emunato Yih'ye" (in his faith he shall live).

[Source: Googling reveals the above biography, which was on the flyer for the talk, is identical to that here and appears to be an old version of the one at the Israeli presidency website.]

There is a tradition that the angel Gabriel, who is responsible for the souls in Eretz Yisrael, came to Navon and said: "Listen, Navon. I am ready for your soul now; I will give it to you back at any time in the history of the Jewish people. When would you like to return to?" The speaker didn't know if he would choose any other time [apart from the present] except when the Torah was given on Mt Sinai. Our generation is lucky to be alive at this crucial time in our history—the most important, decisive time in the past two thousand years.

On the one hand, [this generation] was also the time of the worst pain and tragedy of our history; on the other, this is the beginning of our redemption: the State of Israel. The prophet said (Isaiah 43:6, paraphrasing a bit), "I say to the north, give up; and to the south, don't keep back: bring my sons from afar, and my daughters from the ends of the earth": bring them to Eretz Yisrael.

When the speaker was born there were 60-70,000 Jews in Eretz Yisrael; today there are 5 million. Ben Gurion said he wished to live to see 2.5 million—when he came there were under 50,000. (And he did live to see it.) The state was established not for the Jews who live in Israel, but for the Jewish people. But if the State of Israel had been born not in 1940 but in '38, it might have saved if not millions at least hundreds and thousands of Jews. We should not waste time.

When the State was declared, on 14 May 1948, the speaker did not hear it. He knew it was going to happen, but he was in Jerusalem, in the army: he was the head of intelligence of the Jerusalem area. It was Friday afternoon; there were rumours something was happening in Tel Aviv. On Sunday he read the papers, and it listed the names, including of the Chief of Staff. He said "My G-d they give out the names! I pay money to learn the names of the Arab commanders, and here they [lacuna, sc.: give them out to our enemies for free]!"

The UN had ruled to partition Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state. The Jews accepted this, the Arabs did not, and declared war. Immediately after the decision of the UN, in November '47, the war started with the Palestinians, inside Palestine. So the question was: should they declare independence or not? Sharett, then ambassador in Washington, advised again: the Arabs will smash you. The State Department said don't come to us, we won't help you. It was frightening because the Arab countries said if they did that, they would invade and destroy us.

The Provisional Government of ten people (excluding the two trapped in besieged Jerusalem) voted 6-4 in favour. Ben Gurion said it was now or never. Weizmann: "Do it now." The moment this happened, the five surrounding countries invaded: As [the] possuk [which??] says: SLAYM: Syria, [Lebanon, ?Iraq, ?Mitzrayim (Egypt)]

We numbered 650,000 people; they had 32 million. We had not one single tank, or plane; there were a few machine guns, called Napoleonchik and [lacuna].

Ben Gurion led that war, strategically; but it was very costly: 6000 dead; heavy destruction in the bombardment. Jerusalem was besieged on all sides: the Jordanian army was commanded by a British officer, and trained by the British. There was no milk, and no eggs, and rations of three cigarettes a day.

The War of Independence lasted one year; then the question started: do we let the refugees [presumably in this context, Jews fleeing from persecution in Arab countries following the declaration of the State of Israel] enter Israel? There have no schools or hospitals, no housing; where will they live? The answer was yes.

There were 750,000 new immigrants in four years. They could not say no to any Jew, whether a Holocaust survivor or a refugee of Arab countries. The Prime Minister of Iraq said he would let the Iraqi Jews out only for three months; after that they would close the door. Where was Israel to put them!? They lived in huts, whether in the summer sun or the winter rain and mud. But everyone was prepared to sacrifice: it was for something noble. That was why they formed the state!

People came from Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and other countries. It was lucky that at that historical crossroads, there was a leader: Ben Gurion. It is not the case that one man creates the state, but without him, Herzl and Chaim Weizmann, the state would not have come to pass.

After the State was established, what to do with it, besides [handling] aliyah? In those first four years they built more settlements than the previous seventy years! The newcomers helped in the building of them. The number of roads doubled; the National Water Carrier was built. There was a lot of hostility [...] food rations. But we didn't feel like they were sacrificing something. It felt right to be participants in such a historic time and endeavour.

Years passed. The speaker said he personally was lucky to be present; to be born at that time, and to be nominated later to be secretary of Ben Gurion. After the war he was sent to America. When he returned he became secretary of the Foreign Minister, Sharett. Ben Gurion received the four volumes of a book written in Spanish by a professor in Buenos Aires about the life of Spinoza. He wanted to read the book. He did not know Spanish, so rather than asking someone to read the book for him, he decided to learn Spanish himself, and looked for someone to teach him.

He asked Navon. He said "I only know Judaeo-Spanish, and only lived for two years in Rome." He said, "Two years is a lot of time!" He explained to him the meaning of the words; he explained to the speaker the meaning of the context. And there was the problem about when to learn, when to study. The best time would be Friday afternoon. His wife did not like it at all; she said "You ruin everything; it's time to spend time with the grandchildren!" Navon said, "Tell him!"

After a few months [Ben Gurion] decided had had enough of that book, and wanted to read the most important book in Spanish, Don Quixote. Whilst he was reading this he discovered Navon was once a teacher, and had taught Arabic. He wanted to read Maimonides, who wrote his philosophy in Arabic with Hebrew letters, as the great Jewish minds did in those days. Ben Gurion wanted to read it in the original language.

So they started reading Rambam. Then the wife of Ben Gurion's secretary gave him [the secretary] an ultimatum: "You have to choose Ben Gurion or me: I can't raise our children without a father. You go to work before our children get up; you come back after they've gone to bed; I can't do that." So he resigned, and Ben Gurion invited Navon to take his place. This was the most important experience of his life.

Wasn't it difficult to work with Ben Gurion? He found him a humble man, a modest man, always in good spirits, enjoying a good joke. He asked him once; it is written [Deut. 10:12, slightly paraphrased] "What does the LORD your God require of you? To love Him and be afraid of Him." He said, "Haven't you seen someone who loves his wife and is afraid of her?"

To analyze and prophesise [lacuna]. [Ben Gurion] foresaw developments with such exactitude that you wondered how it happened. Five years before the Second World War, he said the regime of Hitler will not sustain without making war; and in that war he will invade and conquer France, Czechoslovakia, Poland and invade the Soviet Union; any place where there are German communities. And war against the Jewish People. How many years do we have until that terrible day of curse? Maybe four years, maybe five. That was in 1934.

He foresaw the end of the communist regime in the Soviet Union. He analysed it, saying there will be students and scientists who come in touch with the western world, and see that the capitalistic world is not so terrible after all; and that freedom of information would do something to the regime.

Also from the point of view of democracy, he called [the Soviet Union] a house of bondage: they won't let Jews emigrate or study the Bible. Only in a democracy can they do that. He foresaw the end of empires. He saw the unification of the European countries; he wrote to [lacuna] suggesting this as a good solution.

He thought that we, the Jewish people, עַם עוֹלָם "the people of the world", or, "an eternal people", as we are a people scattered thoughout the world, any part of the world is important to us: we must understand it. Nothing that takes place in the world should take place without our understanding it. That's how he studied Buddhism, for example: he had hundreds of books on Buddhism. There are hundreds of thousands of Buddhists. What do we know about them? What do they know about us?

He made contacts with the Prime Minister of Burma, Unu; who came to Israel; and he went to Burma in 1961. He offered Ben Gurion to meditate with him, which was not such a big success: he argued with the priest!

One of the arguments was over the issue of revival after death. After death [said Ben Gurion], there is a revival sometime: the soul comes back to another body. Unu said no, it was not so. Then they asked Galicianer, who converted to Buddhism and [lacuna] "I want a lawyer with one hand." "Why?" "Because lawyers say this, on the other hand, that. So I want a lawyer with one hand."

Then they went to the mountains to meditate, but they read books. After ten days they met up again. Ben Gurion said, "You were right; there is no reincarnation"; Unu said, "No, you are I right; I read it."

Ben Gurion was also interested in China, which was under Russian communist influence. He said it won't last long; one day they will disconnect themselves and we must make contacts with them. Shimon Peres, when he was deputy minister of defence, went to Paris and asked to be put in contact with the Chinese; but it didn't work out at that time.

Ben Gurion: Nothing stands still in this world; all the time things are moving on. "There is nothing new under the sun." That is not true; every day there is something new, and we must analyze it, not as it used to be, or as it will be, but as it is now.

What was Ben Gurion's summing up, his conduct towards Israel? He said: our history is the history of quality versus quantity. How can we survive with the threat of all these hostile countries? We will never be able to be able to compete with the Arab countries in quantities. We have no natural resources, no oil. We can't complain, that הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא brought us to a land of milk and honey, not oil!

We will never be able to have more numbers, or tanks or guns than them. So it's only by superiority in quality—the quality of our moral behaviour, our ehtical behaviour—[that we will succeed]. The standard of a soldier; but a soldier is a product of his society, so we have to be a moral society: a light unto the nations. We will be superior to our neighbours in that sense.

Secondly, the political point of view: Why should Norway, Denmark, etc, support Israel and side with Israel? Why not side with the twenty-whatever Arab states. If Israel is like any other society—if there is corruption, if Israel loses its superiority in science... but if there is some quality in that state—the ingathering of the exile, taking in all these people into one nation; the kibbutzim—never in any country did you see such a society. The son of Harold Wilson spent six months in a kibbutz: you saw volunteers coming to Israel to see the miracle of that society.

And then there was the airlift of the Jews from Ethiopia. Israel is amongst the world leaders in high technology. If we are special for all those reasons, [lacuna]

Thirdly, concerning the Jewish people. What happens in Israel interests the entire Jewish people. If there are things which cause you pride, then you are inclined either to join that state or society, or to help them; if there are cases of high-ranking people in the government interrogated for indecent behaviour, etc: how should Jewish people in the world feel? Israel must be a light unto the nations and a source of pride to the Jews of the world.

For these three reasons it is not only desirable that we excel; it is compulsory: a reason for our existence.

Throughout these years, [lacuna] minister of defence and prime minister [lacuna]

A special relationship existed between him and the bereaved families who lost their sons in the war. You would expect people who lost their sons, who were contacted by the Minister of Defence, that they would get mad at him: he was responsible, he sent them to battle. But what happened was unique. Bereaved families who lost sons in the war made books about them, and five of them dedicated it to them. He would always write them straight back.

Navon read one about Noam Grossman. His parents sent this book to Ben Gurion: "To David Ben Gurion. No worries. He fought on your behalf. He fell on your order. God bless you."

Highlights of Navon's time as president.

He once tried in '73 [to become president]; he ran but failed. He waited five years more and was elected for a five-year term.

He did this not so much because he wanted the honours of the position but because he was involved in interior prominence. There are people of 102 countries [in Israel] speaking 83 languages; how do you forge one nation out of these? He thought he could work on that to do two things simultaneously: to find the common denominators of all of these; also to find what is the distiguishing characteristics of each community, what they can contribute.

The past is common. Adam was a great philosopher when he said for the first time "I": he does not refer to his fingers or the hair of his head. All these people have a common "I": the entirety of Jewish history: the Bible is our identity card. If we know where we are coming from, the more we know the past, the more we can identify as a common people.

Also, Israel is a paradise for anthropologists with all so many different communities there. You go to visit each one as president, and they feel accepted and important, as they are, with their language and their culture.

He was once in a deprived area in Tel Aviv where thre was violence and drugs and so forth. [He went to see] what was happening there, and as president, could he change it? He went there and stayed there three days. Beforehand, he had studied it a month, and talked with [lacuna]. One the one hand he gave vent to the griefs and problems they had; on the other hand he gave high expectations to the youth.

There was an experiment in Chicago: they took fourteen and fifteen-year-old children with the same IQ, and formed a new class with them. The director gave a piece of paper saying these four were the best students. This was a lie; they were all the same. But after a year they were doing the best, becxause the teacher treated them that way. To go into deprived areas as president had the same effect. He asked people what they wanted to be; they said taxi drivers, etc. He said, why not MK; why not?

There is a chance that some might follow your expectations. Experience showed that [lacuna]

Another problem was [handling the presence in Israel of] a million Arabs, mostly Moslems, but also Christians. What do to with these when their relatives were the Palestinians? Luckily he could seak Arabic; he could speak to them in their own language. "I understand your problem: [lacuna]." There are two problems; one psychological; one of housing, sewage, etc.

The first cannot be solved; but when we have a peace treaty with the Palestinians, that will be the end of that. In the meantime, let's see what we can do for you about the second.

Navon was invited to Egypt by President Sadat. From the moment they met, they got on very well. He stayed five days, and met and argued with newspaper editors; told them to speak their hearts, and answered their allegations [lacuna]

Suddently Israel wasn't perceived in Egypt as colonialist: He spoke their language, etc. It was perceived as Middle-Eastern.


[The following was in response to an audience question:]

During the Battle of Britain, Ben Gurion was in the UK a few months, and studied Greek.

In 1961, Ben Gurion came to London to visit Sir Winston Churchill. He was in a wheelchair, [lacuna]. Ben Gurion thanked him again for the role he had played in the Second World War, and for his attitude towards Israel. Churchill said he was always a Zionist; always sympathetic towards the Jews. He said to Ben Gurion "You are a brave leader of a great nation."

Churchill had written an article about Moses, in which he wrote:

We reject, however with scorn all those learned and laboured myths that Moses was but a legendary figure upon whom the priesthood and the people hung their essential social, moral and religious ordinances. We believe that the most scientific view, the most up-to-date and rationalistic conception, will find its full satisfaction in taking the Biblical story literally, and in identifying one of the greatest of human beings with the most decisive leap-forward ever discernable in the human story. We remain unmoved by the tomes of Professor Gradgrind and Dr Dryasdust. We may be sure that all these things happened just as they are set out according to Holy Writ.

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