Former Israeli president Yitzhak Navon dead at 94

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Itzhak Navon, who was Israel's fifth president, an educator and author of literary and theatrical works celebrating the Jewish Sephardic heritage he shared, has died aged 94, his family said Saturday.

A statement from his family said he passed away at his Jerusalem home on Friday.

Navon was born in the same city in 1921.

His father was "a scion of exiles from Spain who arrived in Jerusalem from Turkey in 1670" and his mother's family had reached Jerusalem from Morocco in the 19th century, according to the presidency.

Navon entered public life after the war following Israel's creation in 1948 and held a variety of roles. He headed the education ministry's culture department, before entering parliament, where he served from 1968-1978, eventually as part of Labour.

In 1978, he was elected president, a position he held until 1983.

He returned to parliament for another nine years as part of Labour in a number of positions, including education minister.

Navon also wrote stories and songs, many of them focusing on "preserving the cultural heritage of Sephardic" Jewry, according to the Israeli presidency, as well as the musical play Sephardic Garden, which is still staged more than 40 years after first being produced.

Navon was a highly popular president, in part because of his Sephardic background and his wife Ofira, a former beauty queen who became a psychologist. She died in 1993, aged 57, from complications of breast cancer.

President Reuven Rivlin called Navon "a noble man, unceremoniously aristocratic, a president who came from the people, and whom the people greatly loved and appreciated."

He "strove to preserve the Jewish Ladino traditions, a tradition which created a new Israeli identity, proud of its origins, and not forgetting its roots," Rivlin said in a statement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed "deep sorrow" over Navon's passing.

"I was always impressed by the depth of his education, his openness to everyone and his deep love for the people of Israel and its heritage," a statement from his office read.

Labour chief and opposition leader Isaac Herzog said Navon's "cultural, educational and (political) activities are a legacy of striving to social justice, peace and brotherhood among the nations."

Navon is survived by his second wife, Miri, whom he married in 2008, his children Eren and Naama, and grandchildren.