Welcome to 70 Faces of Israel. To celebrate 70 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, we’re looking at 70 people whose remarkable stories have changed our country and the world.
Name: Ephraim Katzir (born Katchalski)
Date of Birth: 16th May 1916, Kiev, Russian Empire
Date of Death: 30th May 2009, Rehovot, Israel
Claim to Fame: Fourth President of Israel; renowned scientist
In 1973… The eighth Knesset elected Katzir as president
Kiev-born Katzir moved to Israel with his family at the age of eight. They settled in Jerusalem. Katzir and his brother attended the Gymnasia Rehavia where they both displayed an aptitude for science. Following his high school graduation, Katzir studied chemistry and several biology disciplines at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Aged just 25, Katzir received his PhD.
As a decorated Haganah officer, Efraim Katzir served as commander of the student unit field force. He also used his scientific training to the army’s benefit by developing new explosives. After the State of Israel was established in 1948, Katzir became commander of Heil Mada (the scientific research and development corps).
Katzir left Israel for America to continue his learning and research. He studied at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, Columbia, and even Harvard University before returning to Israel. He took a position as Head of the Biophysics Department at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, which he helped found. Katzir was also the Chief Scientist of the IDF, a prestigious military and academic position.
Additionally, Professor Katzir headed a government committee which formulated national scientific policy. He also taught a new generation of innovative Israeli scientists, translated articles into Hebrew, and established a scientific magazine. Incredibly, Katzir also led six different scientific councils:
Prime Minister Golda Meir asked Katzir, a Labour party member, to accept the presidency. He was elected to the position in 1973 by the Knesset. He focused on promoting dialogue and understanding between Israeli Jews and Arabs. Ephraim Katzir’s presidency marked the first time an Arab head of State visited Israel: in 1977, he hosted Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in Jerusalem.
Katzir also prioritised healing inter-Jewish relationships. He worked to end the social, economic, and education gaps between Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Ashkenazi Jews. Following his term as president, Katzir returned to that which he loved most: science.
He resumed his position at the Weizmann Institute and was named Institute Professor. As well as conducting his own research, he established the Depart of Biotechnology at Tel Aviv University. His research was varied, ranging from computer modelling to investigating snake venom! He also authored countless papers which were well received in the scientific world.
Ephraim Katzir’s research focused on synthetic protein models and binding enzymes. His pioneering work paved the way for an entire branch of biology, enzyme engineering. Before assuming the presidency, Katzir established Chief Scientist roles within various government ministries. This meant that applied scientific research for various sectors, and a boon in industrial and agricultural innovation.
Katzir received several prizes for his exemplary contributions to science, including the Israel Prize in life sciences as well as an international medal for outstanding contributions to molecular biology and biochemistry. He also received the Tchernichovsky Prize for exceptional translation; the Japan, Rothschild, and Weizmann Prizes; and honorary doctorates from at least five universities.
Additionally, Katzir was a member of numerous international academic bodies. He also served as a visiting professor for four different schools. But, to Katzir, science was more that a vocation. He saw it as a national resource and invested hours into spreading his creed.
However, Ephraim Katzir was more than “just” an academic. Regarded as caring and modest, he regularly visited families in mourning and displayed touching love for his people. He was passionate about closing socioeconomic divides and wanted to use volunteerism to do this. He also established the Presidential Award for Volunteerism, which annually rewards 12 people for their volunteer work.
Ephraim Katzir died in his home in Rehovot. His wife and two daughters predeceased him. He is survived by a son and three grandchildren.
Previously: 1972: Dana International
Up next: 1974: Yitzhak Rabin