Yitzhak Ben-Zvi: The Israeli President Who Earned Less Than His Driver

Yitzhak Ben-Zvi wanted to save money to integrate immigrants and build up Israel's defense, but a Knesset committee wouldn't hear of it.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In July 1962, the Knesset Finance Committee held a special session to discuss something that's hard to fathom today: how to raise the president’s salary against his will.

The salary of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s second president, had not been increased since he took office 10 years earlier. Ben-Zvi was now making 40 percent less than his driver. The president didn't want a raise, but the committee voted to triple his salary anyway.

Last month, to mark the 50th anniversary of Ben-Zvi’s death, the state archives published documents on the pay hike. “This case well reflects the personality of this special man – a symbol of modesty and personal and public integrity,” the archives' website says.

In December 1962, Ben-Zvi wrote to committee chairman Israel Guri decrying the raise. "Since assuming the post I have considered … our country's galloping rise in living standards one of the most serious dangers to the economic independence we so desire,” Ben-Zvi wrote.

"In my opinion, as long as we are required to fulfill two important commandments – bringing in our brethren and absorbing them here, and increasing our security independence given the external threats we face – we dare not get dragged into raising our standard of living. I have therefore opposed, on principle, a rise in my salary, in the hope that I would serve as an example to others.”

But since the committee ignored his wishes, the president donated part of his salary to a research fund that would help "prepare original historic manuscripts on the history of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel for research and publication.”

Ben-Zvi’s whole way of life served as an example to others, according to the website. “He was known for his humility and distaste for the pursuit of riches and extravagance. His associates reported that it was an effort to persuade him to buy a suit or a pair of shoes, even though they were necessary to fulfill his role.”

“I have too many clothes and I can distribute them to the poor," Ben-Zvi was quoted as saying. "I don’t need any more suits. I have two pairs of shoes, and the second pair is unnecessary.”

Ben-Zvi also rejected the proposal to live in a luxurious official residence in Jerusalem. He said a modest home sufficed when tens of thousands of Israelis were living in transit camps, tents and shacks.

Ben-Zvi died in 1963, and his modesty was evident even after his death: He had refused to be buried in the section for Israel's greats on Mount Herzl. He was buried instead in a regular plot in the Har Hamenuhot cemetery, though his tomb was fenced off.

Two years ago his family was shocked to find that the burial society had destroyed the compound in an attempt to prepare the space for new graves. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rescued it by declaring it a heritage site, after documents proved that the grave site had been specially designated “the president’s plot.”

Israel's second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi.Credit: Fritz Cohen/GPO

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