General - To Remember & To Celebrate | Sikh Philosophy Network
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General To Remember & To Celebrate


Sep 24, 2004
Just days ago The New York Times carried an obituary of Yitzah Navon. He was the fifth President of Israel, serving from 1978 to 1983. Yes, he was a good Jew and one of Israel’s founding fathers. But he was 94, and death must come to all. Yitzah Navon’s biography reads like the life story of an ordinary man. So why do I take notice of his life today.

He was born in Old Jerusalem—one of the Sephardic Jews, a community that had been expelled from Spain around 1492. He remained committed to bridging the divide between Israel and its Arab neighbors, especially Egypt, and internally the gulf between the Ashkenazy and the Sephardic Jews. At Hebrew University he studied Islamic culture, Arabic language and Hebrew literature. When he went to Egypt as president his was the first visit of an Israeli head of state to an Arab country

Remember the old adage: keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

And then his crowning act that caught my attention: In 1982, the Christian Phalange militia in Lebanon carried out a massacre of Palestinians in their Refugee Camps of Sabra and Shatila. Mr. Navon was then nearing the tail end of his tenure and authority as President. He rightly asked, nay demanded and insisted, that a commission of inquiry be convened by the Israel government to determine the extent of Israeli responsibility and culpability.

The office of the president in Israel is largely ceremonial without much authority. As you can well imagine, there was considerable resistance to such a gesture by many Israelis. But Mr. Navon persisted, even to the extent of threatening to resign from his office and creating a Constitutional showdown and crisis.

This simple matter and its sensible resolution rings in glaring contrast to the extra-judicial killings of Sikhs in 1984 in India. According to the Indian government’s figures, over 3000 Sikh, men, women and children were killed in the capital city of Delhi alone though; in fact, the numbers are of a magnitude larger. And the killings went beyond the borders of Delhi to many cities across India. Yet, today, 31 years and 11 vacuous Inquiry Commissions later, atonement and justice remain conspicuously elusive and absent. It was in effect a pogrom and attempted genocide of the Sikhs, aided and abetted by the Indian government of the day.

And in sharp contrast to the actions of Yitzah Navon in the Israel of 1982 stands the wrenching fact that the President of India in 1984 was a Sikh – Zail Singh. It was on his watch that the killings of Sikhs occurred. His silence in the matter was and remained deafening.

But there is more to Mr. Navon. He retired from the Presidency of his country but not from his place as a citizen and a decent human being. He fought elections as an ordinary candidate and was elected to the Knesset and then served as education minister in the cabinet.

Let me draw an ironic parallel to a different incident in a local gurduara in New York. As seems the rule rather than the exception this gurduara was going through some political conniptions in its committee structure. A long standing and popular President of the gurduara had been in that position for a decade and was resisting all calls to step down and give someone else a chance. As a peace offering we suggested that we would appoint him to the very visible and responsible office of Secretary for the new term. He was seriously offended and his response was simple: “This would be a demotion. I am the President. Create a new title that is higher and I will accept that. Nothing else is acceptable.”

Apparently the President of Israel, Yitzah Navon, did not see fighting for a seat in Knesset or working as the education minister for the next six years as a demotion. In that he was not alone. In the United States, of the former Presidents, John Quincy Adams served as a Congressman, Andrew Johnson as a Senator, and William Howard Taft as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. These men did not view this as stepping down or demotion in rank. This makes me wonder about and rue the supreme ego of our Gurduara Presidents.

What values define us; what priorities move us; what realities do we live and die for? That is the question.

Some people deserve to be remembered for their sheer humanity and decency.

November 9, 2015

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