Ben-zvi Was Israel’s Second President; Devoted His Life to Zionism
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Ben-zvi Was Israel’s Second President; Devoted His Life to Zionism

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Izhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s second President, was elected for three consecutive terms of office by the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament. He was first elected in December 1952, on the death of the country’s first President, Dr. Chaim Weizmann. Mr. Ben-Zvi was reelected for his second five-year term in 1957, and his candidature was re-submitted to the Knesset in 1962, when he was reelected without dissent–an indication of Israel’s general esteem for its President.

Born in Poltava, in the Russian Ukraine on December 6, 1884, he studied at the University of Kiev and than went to Turkey for study at the University of Istanbul from 1912 to 1914. With the late Dov Ber Borochov, he founded the Poale Zion movement of Socialist Zionism in 1905. He did organizational work for the new movement in Russia, Germany, Switzerland and Palestine, where he settled in 1906.

While teaching at the Hebrew High School in Jerusalem, which he helped to establish, he was a co-founder of Hashomer, the first Jewish defense organization of the then thin and scattered Jewish settlements in Palestine.


In 1915, in the second year of World War I, the military regime of Turkey, then in control of Palestine, exiled Mr. Ben-Zvi to Egypt. By that time, he had achieved prominence in several fields, including editorship of a weekly periodical, Ahdut. He left Egypt, went to the United States. In cooperation with his life-long friend, David Ben-Gurion, he helped to set up first the Hechalutz movement, and then the Jewish Legion.

In 1917 he returned to Palestine as a private in the army commanded by Field Marshall Sir Edmund Allenby, the British hero who liberated the ancient land from Turkish rule. In 1919, he married Rachel Lishansky-Yanait. One of their sons, Aili, was killed in action in 1948, during Israel’s War of Liberation.

A co-founder of the Ahdut Avodah in Palestine, in 1918, he became a member of the Provisional Jewish Community Commission of Palestine in 1919; a member of the Jewish National Assembly in 1920, of the Histadrut, Israel’s Labor Federation and of the Palestine Government Council from 1929 to 1931. He was chairman of the Histadrut from 1924 to 1929 and a member of the Jerusalem City Council from 1927 to 1930. In 1929, he was a co-founder of the Jewish Agency, established that year in Zurich, Switzerland.

A delegate to many World Zionist Congresses, Mr. Ben-Zvi was a member of the presidium of the Congress twice. Between 1938 and 1947, he represented the Zionist movement and the Palestine Jewish community at various high-level international conferences and inquiries. Among these was the United Nations Inquiry Commission in 1947.


A prolific writer, he was the author of many scholarly works, among them studies of Palestine and its Jewish settlement, Palestine’s Arab neighbors and historical and Biblical writings. On several occasions, he collaborated with Ben-Gurion. A five-volume set of his Collected Works was published in 1935.

As a leader of international socialism, he had written books and articles on Zionism, labor, archeology and history. He wrote frequently on Jewish-Arab relations and was an authority on the Samaritans. He held two honorary doctoral degrees, one from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the other from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

A modest and humble man, Mr. Ben-Zvi did not change as President. When the President’s salary was raised–over his protests–to $6,000 a year, he donated half of his larger salary to research. His modest home in Jerusalem was open to visitors from all walks of life, particularly during the major Jewish holidays. Personally an observant Jew, he continued to worship in the small synagogue he had attended as a private citizen and to take part in its weekly class in Talmud.

In 1948, he was one of the 37 signers of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. He presented a copy of the document to the United States at a ceremony in this country on the Freedom Train which carried the American Declaration of Independence to cities throughout the United States.

When Israel’s first President, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, died in 1952, Mr. Ben-Zvi was the Mapai nominee to succeed him. In 1957 he was elected without opposition to a second five-year term. Again, in October 1962, there was no opposition candidate but 42 voted against him to indicate their objection on principle to a third term for any President, though they made it clear their stand was not against Mr. Ben-Zvi personally.

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