Last Of A Breed Of Israeli Presidents


For a period in the modern history of Israel, the country’s presidency, largely a figurehead position, was the province of academia, filled — after Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, a scientist and Zionist leader — by men who became president from largely apolitical professions, a poet and historian among them.

The last man like that died on Saturday.

Ephraim Katzir, president of Israel from 1973 to 1978, died at 93 at his Rehovot home on the campus of the Weizmann Institute of Science, where he served as a distinguished biophysicist before and after his presidency.

A native of Kiev who came with his family at age 6 to Palestine, he served in the Haganah, was chief scientist of the Israel Defense Forces and helped develop new types of explosives, as well as advances in the treatment of multiple sclerosis.

Tapped by Golda Meir to become president, he later confessed he didn’t know what a president was supposed to do.

A modest man, unaccustomed to the spotlight, he became one of the faces of Israel during the Yom Kippur War and the initial days of the Camp David peace process, greeting Egyptian President Anwar Sadat on his historic visit to Israel.

Katzir, above, greets visiting representatives of the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement.

After stepping down from the presidency, Katzir — who had a doctorate from Hebrew University — returned to the Weizmann Institute, where he continued to work and to counsel former students. His body lay in state there this week.

Katzir, current President Shimon Peres said, “was unmatched in devotion and kindness, in knowledge and ability.” Israeli dignitaries attended Katzir’s funeral Sunday, top.

“He was a historic figure who contributed to the development, security and establishment of the State of Israel,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Presidents who succeeded Katzir brought more visible, more political backgrounds to the position, presidents like Ezer Weizman and Chaim Herzog and Peres.

“I have had the opportunity to devote much of my life to science,” Katzir once said. “Yet my participation over the years in activities outside science has taught me there is life beyond the laboratory.”