Izhak Ben-Zvi

The President of Israel is an apolitical ceremonial figurehead (real executive power is in the hands of the Prime Minister). The President is elected by the members of the Knesset and not directly by the people. In mid 2014, on the eve of the election of a new President, Israeli society is so polarized that a suitable candidate – one of "high spiritual stature, who had contributed to the Zionist endeavor and to the State, and have won much favor among all sectors of the nation" (a quote from the official website of the Israeli President) – has yet to be identified. No wonder many call for abolishing the institution of the Presidency.

The situation was much different back on Dec. 10, 1952 when the Knesset elected Izhak Ben-Zvi to be the 2nd president of the State of Israel. David Ben-Gurion said on Ben-Zvi that his background and his spiritual and moral stature made him a natural and obvious choice for president. Ben-Zvi was reelected on October 29, 1958 and again, for a third term, on December 20, 1962.

Ben-Zvi was born in 1884 in Poltava, Russia. His Zionist activity began during his years of university studies. He was among the founders of the Jewish Defense Organization during anti-Jewish pogroms at Poltava. There he also founded the Labor Zionist Movement – later to become the Poltava branch of the Po'aley Zion party.

From the early days of the movement, Ben-Zvi held the view that the solution of the Jewish problem lay in the reality of settling in the land of Israel. He knew that historical events do not happen on their own but have to be helped along by positive action and by self-sacrifice that serves as an example to others.

Ben-Zvi helped to found Hashomer, the Jewish Guard Organization, the first security force and the precursor of the clandestine Palestinian Jewish Haganah and of the Israel Defense Army. Together with his wife Rachel Yanait, Ben-Zvi founded the first Hebrew Secondary School and organized the labor movement in Jerusalem.

In 1912 Ben-Zvi traveled to Turkey to study law, together with David Ben-Gurion. He returned with the outbreak of World War I, but neither he nor Ben-Gurion was personae gratae to the Ottoman authorities and both were deported. They reached America, where they set about organizing the He'Halutz pioneering youth organization and also enrolled Jewish volunteers for the British Army. They later returned to Palestine as members of the Jewish Legion, which they had thus called into existence.

Ben-Zvi took part in the establishment of "Knesset Israel" – the Jewish community in Palestine – and of its representative body, the "Assembly of Representatives." He was among the founders of the General Federation of Jewish Labor in Palestine, and became a member of the Jerusalem Municipal Council.

From 1922 he was an officer of the Va'ad Leumi, the National Council of the Jewish Community in Palestine, eventually becoming the Va'ad Leumi's President in 1944. Ben-Zvi's public activities were widespread and went beyond the borders of Palestine. He was a delegate to several Zionist Congresses (from the eighth onward) and was an active worker for the Zionist movement all over the world. He represented the workers of Israel at International Labor conferences and appeared at a number of world conferences where Palestine was discussed.

Ben-Zvi was one of the signatories of the Israel Declaration of Independence; and with the establishment of the State became a member of the Provisional Council of State. He was elected to the first and second Knesset and was a member of the Knesset until his election to the presidency.

During his presidency he did not confine himself to the functions required of him, but was indefatigable in trying to bring down inter-communal and inter-ethnic barriers and to effect a true meeting of minds and hearts in Israel. On his election he transferred the presidential residence and office to Jerusalem, the capital city.

During Ben-Zvi's presidency a number of foreign heads of state visited Israel at his invitation. Accompanied by his wife, he also made state visits abroad, bearing the message of Israel far afield.

In addition to his activities in statesmanship and party politics, Ben-Zvi worked as a scholar and writer, as witnessed by many books, essays, and articles, dealing mainly with the Tribes of Israel and with the Holy Land. He founded the Institute for Research of Jewish Communities in the Middle East, which is now called the Ben-Zvi Institute and is affiliated with the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Izhak Ben-Zvi died on April 23, 1963.

The stamp was issued in 1964, design: M. Krup.