Shabtai Levi was born in Constantinople in 1876, where he later studied law. In 1894, he immigrated to the land that is now Israel, at the time under Ottoman rule. He was first employed as a teacher in the small colony of Petach Tiqva, and later as an official of Baron James de Rothschild.
In 1905, Shabtai Levi moved to Haifa to run the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association offices for land acquisition. In this capacity, he established cordial relations with both Arabs and Turks. He later became a member of the Jewish Community of Haifa, the Jewish National Council, and the Haifa Municipal Council. In 1934, he became deputy mayor of Haifa, and founded the new Herzliya quarter; in addition, his close involvement with the community led him to establish the now prestigious Reali High School and the Technion.
During World War II, Shabtai Levi was instrumental in organizing adequate food supply, addressing civil defense, and maintaining normal conditions for the civilians of Haifa. In 1940, he became the city’s first Jewish mayor, and continued its development, building new neighborhoods for army veterans and the municipality, and centralizing water supply and sanitary services.
Shabtai Levi enjoyed the love and confidence of all Haifa citizens, Jewish and Arab alike. During the 1948 War of Liberation, he made every effort to persuade his numerous Arab friends to remain in Haifa and use their influence to prevent the exodus of the Arab population. In this he was only partially successful, but his influence was certainly instrumental in ensuring the harmonious co-existence of the city’s Jewish and Arab citizens. Until his death in 1956, he continued to actively pursue the development of municipal institutions, such as the theater, museums, the Institue of Biology and its adjacent zoo, and the municipal library.