Yad Itzhak Ben-Zvi was established in 1963 by a decision of the Israel government. During the first years of its existence its main activities were focused on gathering and consolidating the archives of Itzhak and Rachel Ben-Zvi and the publication of the writings of Itzhak Ben-Zvi. In 1969 the Knesset adopted a law determining the aims of the Yad, which was charged with advancing research on the history of the Land of Israel and the dissemination of information about it and its various settlements and the heritage of the Jewish communities of Muslim lands.
The law which defined Yad Ben-Zvi's objectives and modus operandi placed responsibility upon it to further study and education in this field. In addition, a few years later (1973), the study of the Jewish communities in Oriental countries and in the Sephardi Diaspora was added to its responsibility. In 1972 the Yad moved to its permanent headquarters in the building which had served as the residence of the president of Israel in Jerusalem. Yad Ben-Zvi has from its very inception involved leading scholars from all of Israel's universities in its activities. It has established joint centers for the study of Ereẓ Israel with each of these universities. The basic principle which has guided Yad Itzhak Ben-Zvi since its inception has been not to limit itself to academic activities for the benefit of small elite groups but to spread knowledge in these fields among all strata of Israeli society – senior officials and junior staff in government offices, the religious and the secular, veteran residents and new immigrants, the elderly and the young, teachers and pupils – throughout the entire country.
The Reseach Institute was founded in 1947 by
, who later became Israel's second president. His public career was highlighted by passionate concern for Jews of Muslim countries and the East, who in the 20th century were uprooted from their ancient communities. Their rich literature, traditions, and customs might have been completely lost were it not for the great efforts made to preserve them. The institute devotes itself to preserving the precious cultural legacy of these communities of the East. The scholars, scientists, poets, and communal leaders of Sephardi and Eastern communities made an indelible
The Ben-Zvi Institute is a fertile common meeting ground for scholars from all of Israel's universities and from abroad. The institute maintains a prestigious research staff, publishes books and periodicals, and holds lectures and symposia. It is affiliated with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Yad Itzhak Ben-Zvi (see below). It cooperates with all of Israel's universities and enjoys the support of the Center for the Integration of the Oriental Jewish Heritage of Israel's Ministry of Education (since its establishment in 1977) and of the Israel Academy of Sciences. The institute initiates and supports research, publishes texts, periodicals, and monographs, and organizes academic conferences and lectures on the Jewish communities of the East.
Its specialized collection on Oriental Jewish communities, housed in the Yad Itzhak Ben-Zvi library, contains the most comprehensive collection of its kind in the world. It is open to scholars and advanced students, who enjoy easy access to books on open shelves and individual attention by expert librarians. The Israel Prize was awarded to the Ben-Zvi Institute in recognition of its contribution to the study of Sephardi and Eastern Jewish history and culture.
The Institute publishes two periodicals: (1) Pe'amim: Studies in Oriental Jewry (a quarterly publication in Hebrew). Established by the Ben-Zvi Institute in 1979, Pe'amim provides scholars, teachers, and students with the best of recent academic research on the Jews of the East. The periodical has revolutionized the study of Oriental Jewry and the teaching of the subject. In recognition of its achievements Pe'amim received the Jerusalem Prize in 1982. (2) Sefunot: Studies and Sources on the History of the Jewish Communities in the East (Hebrew periodical). Appearing since 1956, this series is addressed to a scholarly audience and publishes textual studies of importance for the history, culture, language, and literature of Oriental Jewry. Among its research projects are (a) Oriens Judaicus – Sources for the History of the Jews in Muslim Lands. The purpose of this long-term project is to collect all the sources pertinent to the history of the Jews in Muslim lands. Materials are edited and published in volumes arranged by region and period. (b) Archives in the Former Soviet Union. The opening of libraries and archives in the former Soviet Union has offered scholars unprecedented opportunities to explore hitherto inaccessible archival sources. Scholars affiliated with the Ben-Zvi Institute are examining materials found in St. Petersburg (the Firkovich archive) and other sites. (c) Ethiopian Jewry Legacy. Initiated before the mass aliyah from Ethiopia, this project seeks to document the written and oral heritage of Ethiopian Jewry. Three issues of Pe'amim have been devoted to the subject and an annotated bibliography was published. The Institute hosts the Secretariat of the International Society for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry. (d) The Karaite Jews. Several aspects of the history and culture of the Karaite Jews are being investigated. These include an encyclopedia of Karaite personalities, a bibliography of Karaism, and a study of the inscriptions of the Karaites in Crimea. (e) Judeo-Arabic Culture and Literature. This consists of three projects: (i) Judeo-Arabic halakhic literature; (ii) Judeo-Arabic biblical exegesis; and (iii) Judeo-Arabic philosophical, theological, and polemical works.
There is also the ongoing project to catalogue the Judeo-Arabic manuscripts in the Firkovitch Collection.