President Navon and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch
President Navon and President Sadat of Egypt
|Yitzhak Navon – man of the arts, senior administrator and veteran politician – was born in 1921 in Jerusalem, the son of a long line of renowned Sephardi rabbis. His family has lived in Jerusalem for over 300 years and can trace its ancestry back to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Having graduated from the Hebrew University with a major in Islamic Studies and Pedagogy, Navon served as head of the Arab section of the Haganah in Jerusalem in the critical years 1946-1948.
During the first years of the state, Yitzhak Navon served as a member of the diplomatic corps in Latin America. In 1951 he began a decade-long career in senior administrative posts in the offices of Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, and of its first Minister of Foreign Affairs, Moshe Sharett.
Appointed as head of the Cultural Division of the Ministry of Education and Culture in 1963, Navon mobilized hundreds of IDF female soldiers to become Hebrew teachers and to battle illiteracy among immigrants on the periphery – geographically and socio-economically. From 1965 to 1978, Navon was a member of Knesset, serving as deputy speaker of the house and chairman of the foreign affairs and defense committee. Concurrently, he was active in Israel-Diaspora affairs, serving as chairman of the executive committee of the World Zionist Movement and as chairman of the America-Israel Cultural Fund.
Throughout his career in public life, Navon was both spokesman and source of pride of the Sephardi community in Israel. He won acclaim over the years for his writings, plays and television programs presenting and popularizing the life of the Sephardi communities in Spain and in Jerusalem.
In 1978, at the age of 57, Yitzhak Navon was elected fifth President of the State of Israel. He was noticeably younger than his predecessors, bringing to the President’s residence his wife and two relatively young children – which changed the atmosphere of the official Presidential home.
Yitzhak Navon served during a period of heightened political, social and ethnic polarization, public controversy over the withdrawal from Sinai and the evacuation of Jewish settlements there, and the 1982 war in Lebanon.
During his Presidency, he strove to act as a bridge between Israel’s ethnic groups, religious and secular, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, left and right, Jews and Arabs. Striving to draw those on the periphery into the mainstream of Israeli life, he visited neglected settlements and disadvantaged urban neighborhoods, encouraging community self-confidence. Navon’s warmth and diplomacy and the prestige of his office did much to defuse a potentially explosive situation on the eve of the withdrawal from Sinai. He also opened the President’s residence to writers and performers from across the cultural spectrum.
One of the highlights of his term of office was his state visit to Egypt in 1980 at the invitation of President Anwar Sadat. He impressed his hosts with his eloquent Arabic, breaking the ice and demolishing stereotypes of Israelis and Jews as a "foreign element" to the region. He also paid an state visit to the United States, at the invitation of President Reagan.
While most of his energies were channeled to promoting harmony and consensus-building in a time of social and political tension, Yitzhak Navon was the first Israeli President to depart from the ceremonial role of the Presidency prescribed by law. Taking a public stand on a controversial political issue and indirectly criticizing the government, Navon called for the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry on the events in Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, when Christian Phalangist forces massacred Muslim refugees in an area under Israeli control. This was an act that has ushered in an era of a more "political" Presidency.
After completing a five-year term in office, Yitzhak Navon re-entered partisan politics. In 1984 he was re-elected to the Knesset and appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education and Culture in the national unity government formed after general elections. He was one of the architects who planned the events marking the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and signed the first cultural agreement between Israel and Spain.
He now serves as chairman of the National Authority for Ladino, Neot Kedumim (a biblical landscape reserve), the Jerusalem Rubin Academy of Music and Dance, and as honorary chairman of the Abraham Fund for the promotion of coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israel.
Mr. Navon is the father of a daughter, Na’ama, and a son, Erez. His wife, Ofira, who died of cancer in 1993, was a clinical psychologist.