Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s second President passes away at the age of 78 after a brief battle with cancer. Ben-Zvi is born Ovadiah Shimshelevich in 1884 in Poltava, Ukraine. His father, Zvi, is a member of B’nei Moshe, a secret order of the Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) Movement. Yitzhak is active in both Zionist and Jewish self-defense groups in Ukraine, deepening his involvement in both after a two month visit to the Land of Israel in 1904 and a pogrom in Poltava in November 1905. In 1906, his home is raided by Russian authorities who discover a cache of weapons belonging to a Jewish defense group of which Ben-Zvi is the leader. He manages to escape, but his father is caught and imprisoned in Siberia until being released in 1923.
Yitzhak makes Aliyah in 1907 and settles in Jaffa where he creates a Palestine branch of the Po’alei Zion (Workers of Zion – Labor Zionist Movement), a Movement he helped create in Russia a few years earlier. In Palestine, Yitzhak continues to be active in the area of self-defense helping to create both the Bar Giora and Hashomer defense organizations in the Yishuv.
From 1912-1914, Ben-Zvi along with David Ben-Gurion and Israel Shochat studies law at the University of Istanbul, returning to Palestine after the out outbreak of WWI. He and Ben-Gurion are subsequently expelled by Turkish authorities, at which time they travel to New York and establish the Halutz (pioneer) Organization in North America to recruit North American Jews to both support and fight for the Jewish community in Palestine.
Returning to Palestine in 1918, Ben-Zvi assumes a leading role in developing the Histadrut (Labor Federation) in the Yishuv, and becomes a rising star within Socialist leaning Zionist political movements.
A signatory of Israel’s declaration of independence, Ben-Zvi serves as a member of the Knesset from 1948-1952, when he is elected as Israel’s second President, a role in which he serves until his death in 1963.
Ben-Zvi’s public life is not limited to politics. A scholar and writer, he works with Yosef Chaim Brenner and David Ben-Gurion as co-editors of Ha-Achdut, a journal of the Israeli Socialist Workers Party. After this experience, he goes on to co-Author with David Ben-Gurion the internationally distributed book, The Land of Israel Past and Present. Additionally, Ben-Zvi holds a fascination with Eastern-Jewish culture and society. In 1947, he founds the Ben-Zvi Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities in the East, whose purpose is “studying documents, manuscripts and printed material relating to the history, communal life and culture of the Jewish communities under Islam and in other countries of the Middle East and Asia…” He is also renowned for his extensive on the chronology of the Samaritans.
A beloved politician and Israeli leader, 100,000 mourners line the route of his funeral procession in Jerusalem. His passing comes a week before Israel celebrates its fifteenth Independence Day. Despite the country-wide celebration, flags are lowered to half-mast and no bands are included in military parades.
The photo shows the 100 Israeli shekel banknote which bears Ben-Zvi’s picture. Source: Bank of Israel.