President Ben-Zvi greets an Arab notable
|Yitzhak Ben-Zvi – Zionist labor movement leader and historian – was elected the second President of the State of Israel on December 8, 1952. Ben-Zvi was born in the town of Poltava in the Ukraine in 1884 as Yitzhak Shimshelevitz, the son of a Jewish scholar and writer who Hebraicized his name to Zvi Shimshi (thus, the name Ben-Zvi – "son of Zvi.") Born into a family steeped in Jewish tradition and Zionist fervor, Ben-Zvi’s name is closely associated with Jewish self-defense: at the age of twenty, in the wake of the 1903 Kishinev Pogrom, he was one of the founders of a Jewish defense organization in the Ukraine. After immigrating to Palestine in 1907, Ben-Zvi was a central figure in Hashomer – the defense organization that guarded Jewish agricultural settlements in the early days of the Zionist enterprise.
Expelled from Palestine by the Ottoman authorities (together with David Ben-Gurion, later the first Prime Minister of Israel) during the First World War because of Zionist activities, the pair organized a base for labor Zionism in the United States. In 1917, they joined the 39th Kings’ Fusiliers, returning to Palestine with the British army. Later, in the wake of Arab attacks on Jewish communities in the early 1920s, Ben-Zvi became a founding member of the Haganah, the underground Jewish defense organization.
An avid socialist, Ben-Zvi was a leader of socialist Zionist parties from an early age, and was among the founders of the Histadrut – General Federation of Labor in 1920. A key political figure, he served in many senior posts. Between 1931 and 1948 he was first chairman and then President of the Va’ad Haleumi (the national council) – a "diplomatic post" in which he served as the chief representative of the Jewish community vis-a-vis the mandatory authorities. Elected to the First Knesset in January 1949, Itzhak Ben-Zvi was chosen as President of the State of Israel in 1952.
Yitzhak Ben-Zvi resigned his Knesset post and moved the President’s residence from Rehovot to Jerusalem. However, he was adamant that the President should serve as an example for the citizenry and that his home should reflect the austerity and simplicity of the times. Thus, President Ben-Zvi insisted on living in a wooden prefabricated dwelling – accommodations that were augmented by two larger similar buildings in the yard, used for official receptions.
It was Ben-Zvi, renowned for his warmth, openness and simple manner, who first held some of the annual events which have since become traditions – including "open house" at the President’s residence during the festival of Sukkot and the annual Independence Day reception, an event in which ordinary citizens participate, in addition to the reception held for local dignitaries and the diplomatic corps.
Ben-Zvi took great interest in the various Jewish communities who came to Israel, and in the history of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel. He focused on the traditions, rituals and religious art of Oriental Jewish communities – Yemenite, Persian, Kurdish, Bucharan and others. He himself wrote some twenty volumes on the history of Jewish communities as well as on the unbroken chain of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel since the days of the Second Temple. His work laid the foundations for Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, which is devoted to the study of Jewish communities as well as of the Land of Israel and Jerusalem. However, Ben-Zvi’s devotion to the "Tribes of Israel," as they were called at the time, was more than academic. A proponent of "diversity" decades before the word became popular, Ben-Zvi invited representatives of different Jewish ethnic communities and of minority communities to the President’s residence – a monthly event attended by 100-200 guests from all over the country. Each group related the history of its community, its customs, rituals and traditions, and displayed the items which evolved around these traditions.
In keeping with this interest, Ben-Zvi enhanced the decor of the President’s residence with ceremonial objects and handicrafts of different ethnic communities. A rug woven by Yemenite women sparked the establishment of Maskit – a prestigious non-profit chain which for decades encouraged such crafts and marketed them.
Ben-Zvi served two full five-year terms as President, and was reelected for a third term in December 1962 (when the Presidency was not yet limited by law to two terms). He died six months later on April 23, 1963.
After his death, the Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi research institute was established on the site of the wooden buildings which had served for over a decade as the official residence of the second President of the State of Israel.