January 21, 2019

Yitzhak Navon, 5th President of the State of Israel, dies at 94

The Honorable Yitzhak Navon, 5th President of the State of Israel, Distinguished Chief of Staff of David Ben Gurion, Member of Knesset, Minister of Education, Author, Diplomat and outstanding representative of Classical Sephardic Judaism died on Nov.  7 at his home in Jerusalem. He was 94. 

Navon came from a distingished Sephardic family. His father descended from Spanish exiles who came to Jerusalem from Turkey in 1670; his mother's family arrived from Morocco about 200 years later. He was one of Israel's original state builders.

Born on April 9, 1921, to Yosef and Miryam Navon, Navon graduated from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he studied Islamic culture, Arabic language and Hebrew literature.

During the 1948 war, he headed the Arab division at the Information Section of the Haganah, the pre-state Jewish paramilitary organization.

Navon was first elected to the Knesset in 1965 as a member of Ben-Gurion’s Rafi Party, which later aligned with other political factions to form the Labor Party.

As Israel’s 5th President (1978-1983) he toured Israel extensively, and in 1980, after Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt, he paid a state visit to Egypt as the guest of President Anwar Sadat, who described him as a “friend.” It was the first visit of an Israeli head of state to an Arab country. 

After leaving office as president, Navon returned to the Knesset and also served as education minister from 1984 to 1990.

Navon was fluent in Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language of the Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492, and he strove to preserve Jewish Ladino traditions.

As a writer and playwright, he created several acclaimed works dealing with Ladino Sephardic heritage, including the musical theatre classic Bustan Sephardi (Sephardic Garden), which to this day is considered a landmark in Israeli culture. He also wrote The Six Days and the Seven Gates, a modern tale celebrating the reunification of Jerusalem. 

Navon was a unifying figure in a polarized Israel, where ethnic tensions ran rampant between Sephardic Jewish immigrants from North Africa and Arab countries and the state-founding Ashkenazi elite of European origin.

For many Israelis he was “a man of the people” who would shop at the open marketplace in Jerusalem and chat as easily with the vendors as he did with heads of state.

In March 2015,  Navon released his autobiography “Kol Haderekh” (“All the Way)”. His fascinating life’s journey became an immediate bestseller in Israel. 

In 1963, he married Ofira Erez. She died of leukemia in 1993. Navon is survived by his second wife, Miri Shafir Navon, a daughter, Naama, a son, Erez and several grandchildren. 

Navon was a dear friend to Dr. Jose Nessim (z”l), the founder of the Sephardic Educational Center.  He was one of the honorees at the first SEC International Gala in March 1984 at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, and in his address, he spoke endearingly about “my dear friend Jose Nessim, who with actions made his dreams for the Sephardic world into reality.”Navon was laid to rest at Mt. Herzl cemetery on Nov. 8, after his coffin lay in state that morning. Among the speakers at his funeral were Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and entertainer Yehoram Gaon, who called Navon “My second father.”

May his memory be for a blessing, and may he serve as a role model of the classic Sephardic fusion of tradition, modernity, tolerance, and culture for present and future generations.

The SEC mourns the loss of this great leader. For us, he was the “diplomat of Sephardic Jews worldwide.”

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the international director of the Sephardic Educational Center.