On Ephraim Katzir

Ephraim Katzir was born in Kiev on 16 May 1916. His father, Yehuda Katchalski, was an
accountant and an adherent of Zionism. Katchalski and his wife, Tsila, originally lived in
Łódź, then in the Tsarist empire, now in Poland. Łódź was a centre of socialist politics and
radical endeavour. During the 1905 revolution an uprising took place in Łódź in which many
workers were killed. The city’s social awareness extended to the Jewish community of Łódź,
which constituted approximately one-third of the population. The intense fighting between the
Russians and the Germans on the Eastern Front during World War I persuaded the Katchalskis
to move further eastwards to Kiev in the Ukraine.
After the end of the Great War, the Katchalskis moved to Białystok in an independent
Poland. The economic crisis of the mid 1920s provided the impetus for the Polish Jewish
middle class to leave Białystok for the Yishuv (Jewish settlement in Palestine) in 1925 as part
of the fourth aliyah (emigration to Palestine). The family settled in Jerusalem.
Katchalski (later Katzir) attended the Rehavia Gymnasia in Jerusalem before enrolling in
the newly established Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Katzir was a member of Hanoar Haoved (the working youth), a youth group, established
in 1925, which was an intrinsic part of the pioneering labour Zionist movement. Berl
Katznelson, a central labour figure, was involved with the group from the outset and spoke
at their gatherings.(1) He commented that Hanoar Haoved ‘turned to the most neglected and
impoverished circles of young people, on whom all the educators and organisers had given
up … it listened and understood the lives of young people who worked every day and opened
up new vistas from the everyday life to a world of culture’.(2)
Katzir’s devotion to the construction of a state of the Jews led to a cross-fertilization
between his scientific interests and his national activism. In 1939 he graduated from the
first non-commissioned officers’ course of the Haganah, the Yishuv’s self-defence force, and
subsequently became commander of its student unit in the field. In view of growing military
clashes between Palestinian Arabs and Zionist Jews—and the inevitability of a conflict with
nationalists in the Arab world generally—Katzir contributed his scientific expertise to the
defence of the Yishuv. Katzir felt that in the aftermath of the Shoah (Holocaust) the Jews
would face terrible consequences if they lost the conflict. In May 1948, at the height of
Israel’s war of independence, Katzir was appointed head of the Heyl Mada (HEMED)—the
scientific research and development corps of the Israel Defence Forces. This in turn laid the
basis for RAFAEL Advanced Defence Systems, which today is Israel’s second largest defence
manufacturer, employing 7000 people and responsible for the development of the Iron Dome,
an anti-missile system that has protected Israeli cities from short-range rockets in recent years.
In the early 1960s Katzir headed a governmental committee for the formulation of a National
Scientific Policy.
In a broader sense, Katzir believed that the pursuit of science would make a contribution
to the region. He was certainly inspired by his mentor, Chaim Weizmann, a former chemistry
lecturer at the University of Manchester and Israel’s first president. Sixty years later, Katzir
reflected (3):
I would do what I could to help establish the State of Israel and contribute to its security and its
social and economic development. In addition, I would attempt to do some original research while
at the same time playing my part in raising a new generation of Israeli scientists and helping to
create the physical and intellectual conditions in which science and technology could flourish in
this region. Like Chaim Weizmann, whose life and work served as an inspiration to many young
scientists, I believed with all my heart ‘that science will bring peace to this country, renew its
youthful vigour and create the sources for new life, both spiritually and materially.’
His close association with Weizmann—they shared scientific interests as well as liberal
values—led to a life in which he was honoured for his scientific research in Israel but also
for his commitment to creating a modern state. He thus headed the Israeli Association for the
Promotion of Science, but also served as Chief Scientist of the Ministry of Defence in the
mid 1960s. He trained a generation of younger scientists and translated important material
into Hebrew.
Katzir was heavily involved in the popularization of science from the outset. Even as a
student, he organized a series of lectures on different aspects of scientific endeavour and
investigation for the general public at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and kibbutzim
around the country. He often met with children to stoke their interest in science from an early
age. He subsequently became the co-editor, with Shlomo Hestrin, of one of the very first
Israeli popular science journals, Mada.
Katzir was elected the fourth president of Israel in 1973. The office of president was
deemed to be above politics. Einstein was offered the presidency in succession to Weizmann
in 1952, but preferred to remain at Princeton. Yet all his predecessors had previously been
political figures—and like Katzir had all been members of the dominant Labour party. Since
his term of office in the 1970s all successors have similarly been political figures. Katzir—
while certainly a committed Labour man—was therefore unusual in that he never formally
entered the bear-pit that is Israeli politics.
Katzir came into office at a crossroads in Israeli politics. The pioneering labour Left
that had characterized and influenced his upbringing was in a state of disintegration, while
Menahem Begin’s nationalist Likud was in its ascendency. Begin won office in 1977 at his
ninth attempt. Katzir decided to leave office one year later, having served only one term.
Katzir’s time in office was marked by both war and peace, by violence and calm. A year
before his election, his brother and fellow scientist had been killed in the attack on passengers
at Israel’s Lod airport by the far-Left Japanese Red Army—which was guided by the Popular
8 Biographical Memoirs
Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) with arms supplied by North Korea. In 1974—
one year into Katzir’s presidency—the killings of high-school children took place in Kiriat
Shemonah and Ma’alot in northern Israel.
However, the central events of Katzir’s presidency were the bookended occurrence of the
Yom Kippur war in 1973 with Egypt and the visit of its president, Anwar Sadat, to Israel in
On taking office, the former president, Zalman Shazar, an admirer of the Lubavicher
Rebbe, greeted him with the biblical invocation
Arise, arise chosen of the nation and blessed by God in a good and auspicious time. You should
merit seeing with your very eyes … peace and righteousness reign in the land of our forefathers.(4)
Yet six months after his inauguration, Israel fought a bloody war with Egypt and Syria.
Although the Yom Kippur war ended with the Israeli army near Cairo, the unexpected
Egyptian assault and the crossing of the Suez Canal of its armed forces severely dented Israel’s
self-image and its confidence in being able to defend itself. Israel suffered more than 2500
killed and 7000 injured.
Katzir visited the troops on the front line, talked to bereaved parents and spouses in their
homes and went to hospitals to comfort the injured. Within four years the enemy had turned
into a negotiating partner—and Katzir was the first to greet president Anwar Sadat on his
totally unexpected visit to Israel at the end of 1977. He later recalled Sadat with mixed
emotions (3):
[There was] the close personal relationship that I developed with President Sadat during his brief
but momentous visit to Israel and until his untimely death. This was a valued friendship and
one that I had hoped would help establish closer ties between our two countries. It was a bitter
disappointment to find that zealots from both sides seemed to have ruined every chance for lasting
peace. Sadat was murdered in Egypt by Muslim extremists, and [prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin,
whom I greatly respected and admired, was assassinated by a Jewish extremist in Israel.
During his time in office, Katzir promoted a closing of the gap between the haves and
the have-nots in Israel. He endorsed volunteerism and instituted the Presidential Award for
Volunteerism, a prize granted annually in recognition of 12 individuals who had devoted
themselves to volunteer work. Katzir also promoted the importance of science at all levels
of the Israeli educational system. In the wider world, he strongly supported the expansion of
Jewish studies in institutes of higher education.
Katzir carried out his duties, but he maintained his interest in scientific advances even
while president. In one sense, it mollified an inevitable tedium of office. Katzir was clearly
a political dove in his later years and remained an old-school Zionist pioneer. He strongly
believed in a resolution of the Israel–Palestine problem through a fair settlement. In 2005 he
wrote about his vision for the future (3):
I have always thought of Israel as a pilot plant state in which dedicated people can explore all
kinds of imaginative and creative possibilities aimed at improving society and the state. I feel
certain that in the years to come we will continue to operate as a testing ground, drawing on
the fruits of science and technology to determine the best and most satisfying ways of living
in a country geared to the future. The highest standards of health care, educational practice,
and cultural and recreational facilities will flow from research and development in the natural
sciences, as well as in automation, computer science, information technology, communication,
transportation, and biotechnology. I believe it is possible to create such a pilot plant state by
encouraging the development of science-based high technology industry and agriculture. Once it
gains momentum, this core of activity will contribute significantly to the economic growth and
prosperity of the country. In this pilot plant state, I would like to see a free, pluralistic society, a
democracy whose citizens live by the rule of law, and a welfare state in which public services are
efficiently handled. Great emphasis will be laid on excellence in science and research, literature,
and the arts, thus enriching the intellectual and cultural life of every citizen.
We Jews are eternal optimists. We have always believed, even in the depths of our despair, that
the Messiah will come, even if he tarries a little. I am sure that ultimately we will create our model
society geared for life in the twenty-first century and founded on the great moral and ethical tenets
that we have held sacred since ancient times.
The fashion in the early years of the state of Israel was to hebraize one’s name. Gruen
became Ben-Gurion and Persky became Peres. Katchalsky chose the surname Katzir. This
means ‘harvest’ in Hebrew. It testified to his lifelong belief that hard work and intellectual
commitment would bring its reward for the benefit of all.

(1) Davar, 1 and 13 October 1926.

(2) http://noal.org.il.

(3) 2005 My contributions to science and society. J. Biol. Chem. 280, 16529–16541.

(4) http://www.chabad.org.

Royal Society 1 June 2016

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