Ben-Zvi (Shimshelevich), Izhak

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BEN-ZVI (Shimshelevich), IZHAK

BEN-ZVI (Shimshelevich), IZHAK (1884–1963). Labor leader in the Yishuv, historian, Israeli politician, second president of the State of Israel; member of the First and Second Knessets. Ben-Zvi was born in Poltava, Ukraine, the eldest son of Ẓevi Shimshelevich. His father, a member of *Benei Moshe, visited Ereẓ Israel in 1891 to explore the possibility of settling there. Ben-Zvi was educated in both a traditional and a modern ḥeder, and in 1901–05 studied at a Russian gymnasium. He visited Ereẓ Israel for the first time in 1904 for a period of two months. He entered the University of Kiev in 1905, but studies were interrupted due to a general strike. During the November pogroms he was active in the Jewish self-defense organization in Poltava. In 1906 he attended the founding conference of *Po'alei Zion (Zionist Social Democrats) of Russia, held in Poltava. Ben-Zvi served on the committee of three that formulated the final version of the party's program drafted by Ber *Borochov and contributed the section dealing with Palestine.

In June 1906 a search of Ben-Zvi's parents' home by the Russian police revealed a cache of weapons belonging to the self-defense organization that Ben-Zvi headed. His father was sentenced to lifetime exile in Siberia, serving 16 years before being allowed to leave the Soviet Union and settle in Ereẓ Israel. His aunt, his sister, and his brother Aaron *Reuveni were also imprisoned, but Ben-Zvi himself escaped to Vilna where he participated in the clandestine activities of the central committee of Po'alei Zion. He traveled to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland to try to influence Jewish students there. In Vienna he organized the first ties between Po'alei Zion branches in different countries. At the end of 1906 he returned to Vilna, which, after Borochov's imprisonment, had become the center of the movement.

Ben-Zvi settled in Ereẓ Israel at the beginning of 1907. In the same year he was a Po'alei Zion delegate from Ereẓ Israel to the Eighth Zionist Congress held in The Hague. He participated in the founding of the Bar Giora organization in Jaffa in 1907, and in 1909 of *Ha-Shomer, along with Raḥel Yanait (*Ben-Zvi), who had settled in Ereẓ Israel in 1908, and was to become his wife in 1918.

After the second Turkish revolution (1909), Ben-Zvi traveled to Turkey on behalf of Po'alei Zion. He visited Smyrna, Constantinople, and Salonika, as well as Beirut and Damascus, establishing ties with the Jewish communities and leaders. In Salonika he first encountered the remnants of the Shabbatean sect, later to become a subject for his research.

In 1910 Ben-Zvi, together with Raḥel Yanait, Ze'ev Ashur, and others, founded the first Hebrew socialist periodical in Ereẓ Israel, Aḥdut ("Unity"). Upon the outbreak of World War i, Ben-Zvi interrupted his studies at the University of Constantinople and returned to Ereẓ Israel. During the persecution of Jews by Jamal Pasha, the Ottoman governor, Aḥdut was closed down, and Ben-Zvi, together with David *Ben-Gurion, was imprisoned. They were both deported, and eventually made their way to New York. There they founded in 1915 the He-Ḥalutz movement of America.

Before the British offensive on the Palestine front, Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi initiated a volunteer movement for Jewish battalions in the U.S., and were among the first volunteers. They arrived in Egypt in 1918, and from there they went to Ereẓ Israel as soldiers of the *Jewish Legion in the British Royal Fusiliers. During the disturbances of 1920, 1922, and 1929, Ben-Zvi was active in the ranks of the *Haganah, while also representing the Yishuv in negotiations with the British authorities.

He was elected to the Central Committee of the *Aḥdut ha-Avodah Party at its founding convention. During the summer of 1920 he participated in the world conference of Po'alei Zion held in Vienna, in which the movement split under the impact of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Ben-Zvi was instrumental in its reorganization on a firm Zionist platform.

In October 1920 he was appointed by the British High Commissioner to Palestine, Sir Herbert *Samuel, to the Palestine Advisory Council. But with the Jaffa riots of May 1921 and the subsequent temporary suspension of Jewish immigration, he resigned from the Council in protest against Mandatory government policy.

Ben-Zvi was elected to the Secretariat of the *Histadrut when it was founded in 1920. He devoted a considerable part of his public activity to Jerusalem and its Jewish population. He was first elected to the Jerusalem Municipal Council in 1927, but after the riots of 1929 he resigned from the municipality in protest against the stand of the city's Arab administration. In September 1934 he was reelected to the municipality.

In 1920 Ben-Zvi was elected to the Va'ad Le'ummi, first as a member, then in 1931 as its chairman, and in 1945 as its president. He participated as a delegate in all the Zionist Congresses during the 1920s, and as chairman of the Va'ad Le'ummi he represented the Yishuv at the coronation ceremonies of King George vi in 1937, and at the Round Table Conference on Palestine in London in 1939.

After the establishment of the State of Israel, Ben-Zvi was elected as a *Mapai member to the First and Second Knessets. Upon the death of President Chaim *Weizmann in 1952, he was elected president of the State. He was elected to a second term in 1957, and to a third term in 1962. He died in office on April 23, 1963.

Ben-Zvi headed the Institute for the Study of Oriental Jewish Communities in the Middle East, which he founded in 1948, and which was renamed the Ben-Zvi Institute in 1952. His research on the history of the people of Israel was a lifelong endeavor. The scholarly works that he published were devoted mainly to research on communities and sects (such as the Samaritans, Karaites, Shabbateans, Jewish communities in Asia and Africa, the mountain Jews, and others) and to the geography of Ereẓ Israel, its ancient populations, its antiquities, and its traditions. He was also a prolific journalist, publishing articles under his own name as well as under various pseudonyms.

His brochure Ha-Yishuv ha-Yehudi bi-Kefar Peki'in ("The Jewish Yishuv in Peki'in Village," 1922) was the beginning of series of studies on the Jewish villages in Ereẓ Israel that preceded modern Jewish settlement, most of which were included in his book She'ar Yishuv ("The Remnant of the Yishuv," 1927) and in vol. 2 of his writings. His studies of communities were greatly facilitated by his direct contact with the subjects and by their willingness to reveal historical documents previously unpublished. Ben-Zvi's collected surveys on the non-Jewish communities of Israel appear in Ukhlusei Arẓenu ("Populations in our Land," 1932), which, together with his book on the Jewish population of Israel, Ukhloseinu ba-Areẓ ("Our Population in the Land," 1929), is included in vol. 5 of his writings (1937). His studies on the history of the Samaritans, Sefer ha-Shomeronim (1935, and new enlarged edition 1970), is a basic work. Ben-Zvi also published Masot Ereẓ Israel le-Rav Moshe Basola ("Journeys of R. Moses Basola in Ereẓ Israel"), based on an original manuscript. This study, he believed, had enabled him to identify the unknown traveller in the Masot ha-Nose'a ha-Almoni mi-Livorno mi-Shenat Resh Peh Bet ("Journeys of an Unknown Traveler from Leghorn, from the Year 1521/22"). His book Niddeḥei Yisrael was translated into English (The Exiled and the Redeemed, 1958 and 1961), Spanish, French, Italian, Swedish, and Yiddish. The most important of his many studies on the history of the yishuv is Ereẓ Yisrael ve-Yishuvah bi-Ymei ha-Shilton ha-Ottomani ("Ereẓ Israel and Its Yishuv during the Ottoman Empire," 1955), which is based on Turkish documents and rabbinical responsa of the period. A large part of this work appears in English translation in L. Finkelstein (ed.), The Jews, their History, Culture and Religion (1960), pp. 602–88. His book The Hebrew Battalion Letters (1969) also appeared in English. A volume of his memoirs, He-Ḥazon ve-Hagshamato appeared in 1968. His complete works, including diaries, letters, and articles were republished, starting in 1965, by Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, a memorial institute founded to perpetuate Ben-Zvi's interests and works.


Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, In Memoriam (1965); R. Ben-Zvi, Coming Home (1963); S. Shunami, Bibliografyah shel I. Ben-Zvi (1958), with a biography by S.Z. Shazar; Y. Carmel, I. Ben-Zvi: mi-Tokh Yoman Beit ha-Nasi (1967).

[Shneur Zalman Shazar]

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Ben-Zvi (Shimshelevich), Izhak

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