Yitzhak Ben Tzvi (Shimshelevitz) was born on 24 November (18 Kislev) 1884, in the city of Poltava in the Ukraine. His father, Tzvi Shimshi, was a politician and ardent Zionist. During the pogroms of 1905, he was active in the independent Jewish defense, and was together with Ber Borochov in the “Poalei Tzion” party.
In 1906 Yitzhak Shimshelevitz left Russia. On his way to Palestine he worked to strengthen the organizations of “Poalei Tzion.”
In 1907 he moved to Israel, settling in Jaffa, and became involved with the “Poalei Tzion” party in Palestine, taking part in creating the movement’s international covenant. He was among the founders of the Bar Giora self-defense organization, as well as HaShomer; the forerunners of the Hagana. In 1909, together with Rachel Yanait, later to become his wife, Yitzchak became part of the founding staff of the famous Gymnasia Ha-Ivrit High School in Jerusalem; also serving as one of its first teachers. In 1910 he edited the first socialist journal, “Ha-Ahdut.” As part of his work in the Labor movement in Eretz Israel, he organized and managed the first strike of print workers in Jerusalem. During these years of activism, he and his beloved Rachel were members of a commune led by Boris Shatz, known as “The New Jerusalem,” or by its more popular name, “The Ben Tzvi Commune.”
From 1912-1914, he studied law in Turkey together with David Ben Gurion. In August 1914, after WWI had broken out, both returned to Palestine, and in 1915, they were deported by the Turkish authorities. They both immigrated to New York, continued their Zionist activism, founded the He-Halutz movement, and were active in the Gedud Ha-Ivri organization, to which Ben Tzvi was recruited as a private. In 1918, Ben Tzvi and Rachel Yanait were married. The couple had two children, Amram and Eli. Eli was killed in the War of Independence while defending Kibbutz Beit Keshet.
Ben Tzvi was a scholar of the history of Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel from the Second Temple through the revival of Zionism, and his studies were published as a compendium entitled Sh’ar Yishuv. In his studies he collected testimony from Jewish residents from every city and village in Israel. Among other things, he discovered that there had been contiguous Jewish settlement in the village of Peqi’in throughout the generations, and he maintained friendly relations and a warm kinship with the Jewish community of the village.
His interest in the Jews of Peqi’in began when in 1922, while serving as the head of the National Committee, he and Rachel arrived for the first time in the village during a foot trip through the Galilee.
They visited the homes of Jews in the village, and took an interest in the way of life there. Ben Tzvi was enchanted by these Jews. He felt the greatness of the vision carried out through their lives, and noted that “The Jewish farmers know and understand that the idea of agricultural settlement, of which for hundreds of years they were the only bearers among the Jews in Eretz Israel, and perhaps in the entire world, has become the central idea of the national revival movement.”
Ben Tzvi asked the teacher in the village school, Moshe Levi, to prepare him a precise list of all of the residents living in Peqi’in including their possessions and land. He also visited the head of all of the religious communities in Peqi’in – Druze and Christians (there were only two Moslem families in the village at the time). Ben Tzvi spoke with them in Arabic, and they treated him with honor; the Christians also allowed him to inspect ancient documents in Greek and Latin that they had preserved.
Ben Tzvi made the claim of contiguous Jewish settlement in the Galilee throughout the entire period of exile. Through a large collection of literary excerpts, testimony of pilgrims, and research among residents, he demonstrated that the Jewish community was not entirely uprooted after repression of the Great Revolt and destruction of the Temple. While the community’s ranks dwindled, and although most of the nation was exiled or assimilated among the occupiers, many cells of Jewish life remained in Eretz Israel, and hundreds of thousands remained in their places on their homeland.
Ben Tzvi explained that the pressure of the Moslem government’s threat 1300 years ago and on, as well as the frequent wars that repeatedly plagued the country, destroyed many of the Jewish settlements, but the “embers of the flame of Israel” were not extinguished. Jewish settlement was not erased entirely, and there was not a single generation during which it ceased to exist. He proved that since the Second Temple’s destruction 1950 years ago, through the Byzantine Period and the Middle Ages, and until the modern period, Jewish agricultural settlements existed in Eretz Israel, particularly in the Galilee.
In Sh’ar Yishuv, he writes about the Jews of Peqi’in: “Thus in their remote corner, live the remnants of Jewish agricultural settlement that has persisted since ancient times, isolated and lonely like the ancient carob tree in whose shade they were sheltered. For hundreds of years they endured torture, and the hope of redemption and salvation did not leave them.”
After the death of Haim Weizmann, on December 8, 1952, Yitzchak Ben Tzvi was appointed President of the State of Israel. The only president who served three terms, he remained in this position until his death in 1963.
During Ben Tzvi’s second visit to Peqi’in, in 1926, residents presented him – as one of the greatest scholars of the village – with four defective Torah scrolls, which had been stored in a special closet in one of the synagogue walls. The shape of the writing and letters testify to their Ashkenazic origins. The elders of the Peqi’in community told Ben Tzvi that they had heard from previous generations that there had once been an Ashkenazic community in Peqi’in. Ben Zvi investigated the matter and discovered that it was indeed true; these findings also appear in the book Sh’ar Yishuv.
In 1930, Yitzhak Ben Tzvi discovered a second stone, identical in size to a previous stone discovered, with a relief depicting the door of a tabernacle. Two large pillars figure on either side of the door, decorated with lines that curve around like snakes. The entire drawing, in Ben Tzvi’s opinion, was doubtless from the Torah ark in the synagogue: ”It can be reasoned that the stone was positioned above the actual Torah ark” (Ben Tzvi, Sh’ar Yishuv, p. 39). In the opinion of experts, the artistic-colorful style belongs to the ancient period prior to the influence of Islam (2nd-5th century), and, like the dating of the previous stone with the image of the lamp, in Ben Tzvi’s opinion, this strengthens the case that Peqi’in is and was an ancient Jewish settlement, reaching as far back as the days of the Romans and Byzantines. Ben Tzvi summarizes his research (Ben Tzvi, ibid.) by stating that “This is therefore additional evidence of the fact that there was an ancient Jewish settlement here from the days of the Second Temple.”
Ben Tzvi discovered a third stone in one of the Druze houses in the village, located near the Jewish Quarter and the synagogue. The stone was built into one of the house’s walls, and decorated with a bunch of grapes. This motif, depicting one of the seven species that grace the Holy Land, is characteristic of ancient Jewish art.
In 1950, the synagogue was renovated at the initiative of Ben Tzvi, who was at the time the first president of the State of Israel. During his term of office, only one Jewish family remained in Peqi’in, and the president of the state made a moving appeal to then Prime Minister David Ben Gurion: “I hereby appeal to you regarding the matter of Peqi’in… this community, which existed during all the days of the Turks and during the Mandatory period, no longer appears on the list of Jewish communities in Israel in 1951; it does not appear because it does not exist.” The dwindling Jewish presence in Peqi’in was difficult for the president, and he acted with all his might for its survival. His earnest action led to the purchase of lands near the village. Thus, on January, 6, 1955, the foundations for a moshav, “Peqi’in HeHadasha,” were laid.
Only two families from the ancient Peqi’in moved there, and Yitzhak Ben Tzvi himself visited the moshav to celebrate its establishment. Hakham Yosef Avraham Toma Ha-Cohen, who was the last head of the ancient Jewish community of Peqi’in, greeted the president in festive garments, recited the shehehiyanu blessing and noted with emotion his personal privilege of receiving the president of Israel after 2,000 years, as a descendant of the family of priests who served in the Temple in Jerusalem, and never left Israel.
Ben Tzvi died on 23 April 1963, at the beginning of his third term as president. He was beloved unto the people, and throngs attended his funeral from all over the county.
Throughout the years, Yitzhak and Rachel Ben Tzvi remained in contact with the Zeinati family, the last Jewish family in Peqi’in. They purchased the house adjacent to the Zeinati residence, and gave it as a gift to Yosef and Sa’adah Zeinati, for their benefit.
The one hundred shekel bill of the State of Israel is devoted entirely to Peqi’in and to one of its greatest scholars and lovers in the history of Israel. The image of Ben Tzvi, Israel’s second president, displays prominently on one side of the bill, while its other side features the ancient synagogue in Peqi’in, the Jewish school, the Spring Square, and in the background, the scenery around Peqi’in, all beneath the shade of the carob tree.