On May 24, 1973, Israeli eyes turned to the platform in front of the Knesset, the country's parliament, for the swearing-in of its new president. Standing together were Speaker Yisrael Yeshayahu and outgoing president Zalman Shazar, called upon by Prime Minister Golda Meir to hand over the reins of the presidency to Ephraim Katzir, a London-born, American-educated scientist, one of the best minds in Israel.

Just three months before, Shazar – born Shneur Zalman Rubashov – had dropped a bombshell, announcing at a historic Chabad-Lubavitch synagogue in the Old City, the famed Tzemach Tzedek shul, that he would not seek another term as president.

The suggestion had come from the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, who had guided Shazar throughout his career.

"I was called up to the Torah in the Tzemach Tzedek," Shazar wrote that day to the Rebbe. "I mentioned that I am leaving office and it brought with it a wave of displeasure, however, [the people expressing this] are not the ones who decide."

At the Knesset, making a speech in honor of his successor, Shazar assumed the poetic tone he had become famous for: "There is no blessing in my heart for our land other than the blessing of peace in all the facets of our life," he said. "Peace between all the nations and races in our land, peace between our land and our neighbors, and peace between all the various segments of our nation."

Turning to Katzir, the outgoing president invoked biblical language: "Arise, arise chosen of the nation and blessed by G‑d in a good and auspicious time. You should merit seeing with your very eyes … peace and righteousness reign in the land of our forefathers."

But the fourth president's term was fraught with difficult days. In the ensuing months and years, a series of governments fell, political scandals rocked the public and the security situation deteriorated to its lowest depths. The Yom Kippur War came at the end of the summer in 1973, terrorists took over hotels in Tel Aviv, bombs exploded in Jerusalem's streets. At the same time, the nation's fabric seemed torn between Israel's various factions, who staged demonstrations bringing out tens of thousands of people.

Katzir applauds the group of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries.
Katzir applauds the group of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries.

Builders of the Land

In 1976, when his third year in office dawned, the dream of peace Katzir had been charged with had still not materialized.

But that winter, in front of thousands of people who had gathered at Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y., the Rebbe made a surprise announcement. On occasion of the anniversary of the release from prison of the First Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, 20 Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidim – a mix of married couples and single rabbinical students – would be moving to Israel.

The First Rebbe said that "the charity he [established] for the settlement of those in the Holy Land had stood for him in his merit during his time in jail," the Rebbe explained. Therefore, it was an auspicious time for 10 people to go to Jerusalem and 10 to Safed.

Among their missions, the Rebbe said, was to fulfill those Divine precepts that can only be performed in the Land of Israel.

At the gathering, the Rebbe spoke at length about how to obtain lasting peace in the Holy Land. He based his strategy on Jewish law, Talmudic theology, a love of the Land of Israel and those that dwelled inside it, and an intimate knowledge of Israeli national security issues.

Six weeks later, thousands of people escorted the group of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries – men, women and children – to their new lives in Israel. Waiting to greet them was none other than Katzir and Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin.

At a meeting at the Knesset, their teacher and mentor, the cherished scholar Rabbi Mordechai Mentlik, presented Rabin with a check for $10,000, sent by the Rebbe for the specific purpose of building the Land of Israel.

That day at Katzir's official residence, the president – who, like his predecessor, had attended Chasidic gatherings in the central Israeli village of Kfar Chabad – spoke to the group about its holy mission "to build the land."

"We have experimented with many military operations," Katzir said. "You speak about tasks that the Rebbe requested that you do. These tasks are traditional from the time of the birth of the Jewish nation.

"At times we need to do one military operation or another. At times we need to make financial decisions. However, we all wish that [regarding] the tasks that the Rebbe requests, we will all do them," he continued. "If only we would reach the day when we will not need the materialistic task, the military tasks, and all of us will be able to dedicate ourselves to our spiritual responsibilities."