Yitzhak Navon was born on Rosh Hodesh Nissan 5681, April 9, 1921, in Jerusalem. On his father's side, he is a descendant of the Jews who were expelled from Spain and who came to Jerusalem from Turkey in 1670. On his mother's side, Navon is descended from the Ben-Atar family of Morocco, who came to Jerusalem in 1884.
As a graduate of the Hebrew University in Pedagogy, Islamic culture, and Arabic language and literature, he was a teacher for several years. During the War of Independence, he headed the Arabic Department of the Haganah in Jerusalem. At the end of the war, he served as second secretary at the Israeli embassy in Uruguay and Argentina.
In 1952, after serving as Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett's political secretary, Mr. Navon was appointed Director of the Office of the Prime Minister to Ben-Gurion. He served in this position until 1963, when Ben-Gurion retired.
From 1963 to 1965, Mr. Navon directed the Department of Culture at the Ministry of Education and Culture. In this position, he was the head of the campaign to “Eradicate Illiteracy,” in which hundreds of soldiers took part in teaching reading to adults living in the outlying areas and development towns. At that time, in a conversation with Education Minister Aran, he initiated the idea of establishing centers of culture, youth, and sport – today's community centers (matnas).
In 1965, Navon was elected to the Knesset and was a member until 1978. He served for 7 years as the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and 4 years as chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee. During his term of office, in 1974, he monitored the implementation of the Agranat Commission Report on the lessons of the Yom Kippur War.
At the twenty-eighth Zionist Congress, Navon was elected chairman of the World Zionist Executive Committee. This gave him an opportunity to forge close ties with Jewish communities and organization leaders worldwide.
In all of these positions, Navon was guided by social issues such as demographics, concern for large families, education, a connection with the Jews of the Diaspora, and above all, reducing the gaps among people of different cultures and creating a bridge of understanding among them. This was in addition to his constant preoccupation with foreign and security affairs.
Yitzhak Navon was elected President of the State of Israel on the 12th of Nissan 5738, April 19, 1978. He conferred prestige and moral strength upon the office. His term in office was distinguished by a feeling of unity; his presidency added a dimension of simplicity and a true expression of love of all the people of Israel, no matter their ethnic origin.
The President traveled widely throughout the country, making a basic study of what was happening in the inner-city neighborhoods, development towns, and minority communities. On his visits, he always encouraged the local youth to contribute actively to their community, to have faith in themselves, and to aspire to achievement in all fields.
In 1982, after the massacre in the camps at Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon, President Navon demanded that an official commission of inquiry be established to investigate the events. His opinion carried much weight in the government's decision on the issue.
President Navon chose to limit his travels abroad, but willingly accepted an invitation by the President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, to visit his country. On this historic visit to Egypt, President Navon did much for Israel's image, and, as Sadat said, “He captured the heart of the Egyptian people.” Another trip Navon made was to the United States, by invitation of President Reagan. President Navon met with members of the Senate and Congress, appeared at Jewish schools, and held important dialogues with Jewish leaders, in addition to attending rallies and press conferences.
In 1984, President Navon was re-elected to the Knesset for the Labor Party and served as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education and Culture until 1990. Navon admitted publicly that it had been a mistake to return to political life after having served as President. “Whoever wishes to be President must understand that in doing so, he is ending his political career,” Navon said.
In the Ministry of Education, Navon was given the opportunity to assign special importance to scientific-technological education, as well as to the values of democracy and co-existence among ethnic communities and religions. President Navon was also active in promoting education in the Arab and Druze sectors and raising their conditions to those citizens of the rest of the country. During his term, of office President Navon brought about an expansion of 30% in the study of Arabic. As Minister, Navon initiated the “Culture Package,” which guarantees cultural and artistic experiences for every school child. He also introduced the practice of high school pupils traveling to Poland to learn about the Holocaust.
In 1985, as a member of the cabinet in the unity government, he was the only minister who opposed the release of 1,150 terrorists in exchange for three Israeli prisoners of war, in what was known as the “Jibril exchange.”
As 1992 approached, President Navon agreed to take upon himself the chairmanship of the “Public Council for Marking 500 Years Since the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain.” He also had a major role in creating the television series “Jerusalem which was in Spain,” which retells the history of the Jews of Spain, of their glory and their suffering.
After retiring from public life, Mr. Navon served as chairman of public organizations that reflect his personality and interests: The Neot Kedumim Society, which reconstructs the flora mentioned in the Bible and Talmud, as well as the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem and the National Authority of Ladino Culture. In addition, Mr. Navon serves as honorary President of “Keren Avraham” [the Abraham Fund], whose purpose is to encourage understanding and co-existence between Jews and Arabs in Israel.
The goal of preserving the heritage of Spanish Jewry and introducing it to all communities in Israel was reflected in Mr. Navon's works, “Romancero Sephardi,” a concert of sacred and secular music that was performed in 1968, and a year later in the play “Bustan Sepharadi,” which deals with the life of a typical, previous-generation Sephardic family in Jerusalem. The play was awarded the Kinnor David prize in 1979, was revived by Habimah Theater in 1998, and has been performed hundreds of times since then. Apart from these, Mr. Navon has written legends and short stories that revolve around the spirit of Jerusalem. Among his stories is “Six Days and Seven Gates,” a story about “The Scroll of the Elders at the Western Wall.” This story was recently distributed by the Ministry of Defense to IDF bereaved families. He also published a volume of articles by David Ben-Gurion under the title “Be'emunato Yih'ye” (in his faith he shall live).