Dr. Reuben Hecht was at once an intellectual, a lover of history and culture, and a visionary entrepreneur. Dr. Hecht lived and worked at a pivotal time for the existence of the Jewish people.  The challenges he faced shaped his life’s service and contributions to the Jewish people, their state, and larger community.

Reuben Rudolf Hecht was born in the port city of Antwerp in Belgium in 1909. His family’s Shipping Company first established by his father and uncle early in the 20th century, developed from a family business of storage and sale of grain into a transnational company that specialized in shipping goods down the rivers Rhine, Main, and Neckar.  Their vessels sailed between Basel in Switzerland, Antwerp in Belgium and Rotterdam in Holland. In 1919 the family settled in Basel, where in 1928 the young Reuben completed his high school education.

In his youth Reuben Hecht was a leader in the Blau-Weiss Zionist youth movement. Exposed to Herzlian Zionism and influenced by the ideas of Revisionist Zionism, his Zionist activity continued throughout his academic studies. He leaned toward Jewish nationalism, a direction that parted ways with the socio-utopian ideas of the Socialist-Zionist wing. In 1931 Hecht visited Haifa for the first time, and fell in love with the sea and the Carmel mountain range. Like Herzl in his book Altneuland   (translated into Hebrew in 1902 by Nachum Sokolov under the title Tel-Aviv), Hecht saw Haifa as an important urban center in the future Jewish state. At the same time, he had a deep affection for Jerusalem, and the city’s age-old history influenced his life’s course. In Palestine he was interested in archeological excavations and in findings that plotted a direct connection between past and present. Hecht’s interest in the archeology of the Land of Israel continued to his death, and is reflected in his unique archeological collection.

Between 1928 and 1933 Reuben Hecht studied at leading German universities: in Berlin, in Munich, and in Heidelberg. In 1931, he was awarded the degree of Magister (Master) of Economics in Berlin. He acquired his wide-ranging education in courses in law, archeology, art and ancient history, along with the natural sciences, theater and journalism. Hecht wrote his doctoral dissertation on the theoretical aspects of the development of the riverine trade on the Rhine in prehistory at the University of Heidelberg. He completed his degree with honors (magna cum laude) in 1933, the year the Nazis rose to power.

Dr. Hecht combined his family’s business ventures with wide-ranging Zionist activities. His commitment to Herzlian Zionism and to Ze'ev Jabotinsky was absolute. In 1933 he worked in the offices of the world leadership of the Revisionist Zionist Organization in Paris, and in 1935 he was a delegate to the First Congress of the New Zionist Organization which convened in Vienna.

In 1936 Dr. Hecht moved to Palestine to advance his business enterprises and Zionist activism. The Mandate government blocked his business initiatives, which included building grain silos at Haifa port in 1937. Despite his father’s opposition to his political activity and the Nazi’s race laws which compelled his sale of family assets in Germany, Dr. Hecht’s Zionist activity did not wane.  To the contrary, He contributed financially to the illegal immigration of Jews to Palestine.

In 1939, as World War II loomed, Hecht left for Europe on a mission for the (underground) National Military Organization (IZL - Irgun). As a businessman with far-reaching connections into various European circles, he opened offices to facilitate Aliya B (illegal immigration) activity in Zurich and Paris. He also represented the Irgun in various fora, always distinguished as an (outspoken) activist from the Revisionist Zionist movement and in the New Zionist Organization. In 1941 in Belgrade he married Edith, née Zilzer. Despite the German invasion of Yugoslavia, he succeeded in returning with his wife to Switzerland.  Once settled in Zurich, he acted tirelessly to save Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe.

Dr. Hecht returned to Israel at the end of the Mandate period. In 1950 he settled in Haifa and furthered economic enterprises of great importance for the young State of Israel in general, and for Haifa in particular. Dr. Hecht was granted by the State of Israel a franchise to establish and operate grain silos in Haifa, and later in Ashdod. Along with commercial successes in Israel and around the world, his Zionist activity persisted; indeed, he served as an advisor to Prime Ministers Menahem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, accompanying each on state visits abroad.

Dr. Hecht’s great erudition, together with his interest in history, archeology and culture, found expression in his public activity. From the time of his return to Israel, Dr. Hecht served as a member of government committees and public councils, among them the Permanent Committee for the design of banknotes, coins and medals, the Archeological Council and Public Committee for Culture and Art.

Dr. Hecht was one of the principal founders of the University of Haifa and served on its Board of Governors. Similarly, he was a philanthropist whose generosity extended to leading research institutions in Israel, among them the Weizmann Institute. He initiated the creation of the Herzl Institute for the Study of Zionism Research at the University of Haifa and inaugurated the Reuben Hecht Chair in Zionism and History, also at the University of Haifa.

For 60 years Dr. Hecht nurtured a collection of archeological objects unearthed in the Land of Israel which enliven the connection between the people of Israel and the Land of Israel. In 1978 he voiced the idea of “The Way of the Generations,” the archeological garden in Carmel Park, and in 1984, he worked toward the establishment of the Reuben and Edith Hecht Museum at the University of Haifa.  This unique museum displays archeological objects and a collection of art-works by Jewish Impressionist artist and painters, some of whom perished in the Holocaust.

Dr. Reuben Hecht won dozens of prizes and honorable decorations in Israel and other countries. In 1984 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Haifa. In 1988, the 40th year of Israel’s independence, he won the Israel Prize for his life’s work. Written in the judges’ reasoning for the award are these words:

He is a man in whom are interwoven, in a rare manner, a Zionist and social vision and a creative economic drive. He is possessed of expansive horizons and passionate attachment to the history of the people and the land.  

Both a square in Haifa and a thoroughfare in Beer Sheva are named in Dr. Hecht’s honor. Dr. Reuben Hecht died in 1993 and he is buried in the Etzel and Lehi plot at the Haifa cemetery.