Israel Mourns Its First President

This week in Haaretz: 1952.

Yael Gruenpeter
Yael Gruenpeter

Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a president who earned the title citizen Number 1 in the State of Israel, from the day it was established, until his death on November 9, 1952.

On November 14 of that year, Haaretz published articles by Moshe Smilansky and Kurt Blumenfeld in memory of the first president, Chaim Weizmann.

Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann, on a five shekel note, now out of use.Credit: Eyal Warchavsky

"My good luck brought me to know the man early on as his star was rising ... and my bad luck brought me to continue knowing him as his star faded and stand before his black coffin," wrote Smilansky. "As I stand before his coffin, in a flash all the years appeared before me ... and it seemed to me as if I was a witness to one of the greatest human tragedies, the ones that instill fear, and at the same time, do not end all possibility of hope. Fear for the fate of the human race, the fate of the Chosen People, and the hope for the end of days. If there are still such men walking the face of the earth, then there is still hope."

After covering the life and times of Weizmann, Smilansky concluded with the following: "As I stood beside his coffin draped in black, I remembered. Don't weep for the dead. Weep for the living, for the lofty ideals that are slowly departing ... will they return?"

In another article in memory of Weizmann published in the same edition of Haaretz, Kurt Blumenfeld, a Zionist leader in Germany and a Weizmann supporter throughout the years, wrote "the news of Chaim Weizmann's death stunned the world. Condolences are flowing from around the world. The world is expressing its condolences to Israel and the Jewish people and many in Israel can learn from this lofty lament about whom they have lost."

As great as the admiration for the president and the grief accompanying his death was the bitterness over the state's attitude toward his passing.

Pnina Baror expressed the sentiments of many in her letter to the editor.

"I was privileged to see what I dared not hope for: an independent state of Israel. We owe this in no small measure to a distinguished figure among us, the first president, Dr. Chaim Weizmann," she wrote. "Intense grief spread during the two days until the funeral and people walked with their heads lowered and just one subject on their minds, the painful death of our president. And everyone waited to hear the arrangements for getting time off from work on the day of the funeral, as is common in many countries upon the death of its president or king. However, on the day of the funeral, citizens had to work as if it were a regular day and there was only a short two-hour period of time off.

"Immediately after the funeral, shops and entertainment venues opened as if nothing had happened ... I was embarrassed, but thought I alone felt that this treatment was a personal affront. Conversations on the street showed me that everyone felt the same affront. Everyone was offended in a way that will not be quickly forgotten."

Contrary to custom, the editor referred readers to an editorial published the same day, which commented among other things on the nature of the full military funeral.

"Undoubtedly, readers' letters express widespread public sentiment," the editorial read. "Once again it became apparent that we have still not found the appropriate manners to express a sense of national grief ... there is something true about the claim that the president's funeral had an overly military tone. The IDF Rabbinate's authority is limited to military people and the chief rabbis should have been the ones officiating at the funeral of the state's president. The coffin being carried by senior army officers prevented the fulfillment of this commandment by Dr. Weizmann's personal friends and by members of the cabinet, veterans of the Zionist leadership and heads of the academic institutions ... the impression created was that the army had a monopoly over the deceased and this is most regrettable."



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