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Ephraim Katzir


 

Ephraim Katzir 

Professor Ephraim Katzir - eminent scientist and the fourth President of the State of Israel - was born in Kiev in 1916 as Ephraim Katchalski. Katzir, who Hebraicized his name when he became President, was what Israelis call "almost a Sabra"; his family immigrated to British-ruled Palestine when he was six years old, and he grew up in Jerusalem. In 1932 he began studying biology at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, where he did both his undergraduate and graduate work, receiving his Ph.D. in 1941. Like other students at the time, Ephraim Katzir was a member of the Haganah, the underground Jewish defense organization, and played a role in the creation of a military research and development unit developing explosives, propellants and more. During the War of Independence, he was appointed head of the IDF science corps.Professor Katzir was one of the founding scientists of the Weizmann Institute of Science in 1949, an institution with which he has been associated throughout his professional career, both before and after serving as President. As founder and head of the Institute's Biophysics Department, Katzir was involved in seminal work on synthetic protein models that contributed significantly to the understanding of biology, chemistry and physics, and deepened understanding of the genetic code and of immune responses. His pioneering work on immobilized enzymes used in oral antibiotics, for which he received the Japan Prize in 1985, has revolutionized a number of industries and branches of medical research. Three landmark events "defined" Katzir's Presidency. His term in office began on May 24, 1973 - just over four months prior to the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War and exactly a year after the tragic death of his brother, Professor Aharon Katzir, who was murdered in the May 1972 terrorist attack at Ben-Gurion Airport. A third momentous event, this a joyous one - the visit of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt in Jerusalem in November 1977 - took place near the end of his term as President. Katzir placed special emphasis on education and science as a fulcrum to economic prosperity. As a former chief scientist of the IDF (1966-68), Ephraim Katzir made numerous tours of army units and military research facilities, as well as of industrial complexes and educational facilities, including those in development towns. Using his personal standing and the prestige of his office, he galvanized academics to address the danger of assimilation in Diaspora communities by pressing for the establishment of departments of Jewish studies at colleges and universities abroad - deemed the "last chance" to expose Jewish youth in the Diaspora to their heritage and Jewish identity. In 1966 he accepted the invitation of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to head a committee charged with advising the government on its future activities in science and technology. The result was the appointment, in several government ministries, of Chief Scientists charged with promoting applied research in governmental institutions, institutes of higher education and industry, leading to greater cooperation between the three sectors. It also led to a dramatic increase in government spending on applied research, causing a surge in innovative science-based activities, especially in industry and agriculture. Throughout his five years in office, President Katzir emphasized science and higher education, but also reached out to numerous individual families in distress and devoted much time to promoting volunteerism as an avenue for narrowing educational and socio-economic gaps. During his term of office, the Presidential Award for Volunteerism was inaugurated - an annual prize granted in recognition of twelve individuals who distinguished themselves in volunteer work. Ephraim Katzir stepped down from the Presidency in May 1978 to return to scientific research. Since returning to the Weizmann Institute, Professor Katzir has given priority to the encouragement of biotechnological research in Israel and played a part in the foundation of a Department of Biotechnology at Tel Aviv University. Convinced that Israel needs to develop a highly-skilled workforce for its hi-tech sector, Ephraim Katzir also serves as World President of ORT - a network of vocational schools.

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