Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Sephardic Kingmaker of Israeli Politics, Dies at 93

Revered Shas Leader Turned Underclass Into Potent Force

Sephardic Legend Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, right, was revered for raising the profile of Sephardic Jews worldwide.
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Sephardic Legend Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, right, was revered for raising the profile of Sephardic Jews worldwide.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published October 07, 2013.
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Yosef insisted that every rabbi and yeshiva student associated with Shas make time to share their learning through lectures and classes in their communities. He led by example, giving a weekly address on Saturday nights almost until the end of his life. (The lectures were eventually broadcast by satellite). He sparked a large hozer b’tshuva or newly religious movement among Sephardim, whose recruits generally became Shas voters, joining with the lifelong-religious and traditional Sephardim who revered Yosef. This turned Shas into one of Israeli politics’ strongest vote-getters.

With his call for religious activism, Yosef ensured that Shas would be much more than a political movement that kicked into action in election season. The party demanded members’ loyalty, and turned itself in to the glue that holds Sephardi Haredi communities together. Its ever-growing network of educational establishments educates their children, while its influence in yeshivot shapes the thinking of young adults, and its newspaper, radio station and dissemination of Yosef’s lectures further influence public opinion.

But it wasn’t just Yosef’s vision in building support for Shas and its positions that made the party successful. It was also his talent for coalition politics.

Yosef’s religious approach enabled Shas to work comfortably in both right-wing and left-wing governments. The party went with the flow, tracking the national mood on the issue of peace with the Palestinians.

To the shock of Ashkenazi Haredim, in 1992, Shas joined the government of Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin. This was the very government that, in the eyes of many Orthodox Israelis, went on to commit the ultimate act of treachery, namely negotiating with the Palestinians and launching the Oslo peace process. But despite Yosef’s particularistic worldview and an attitude of superiority he maintained toward non-Jews, he believed in negotiations and territorial withdrawal in return for peace.

Yosef expressed this view as early as the 1970s, when he reasoned that for the supreme religious value of saving Jewish lives it was permissible to negotiate with Arab states and even concede territory, so long as security experts approved any concessions. He had been chief rabbi during the Yom Kippur War and dealt personally with the plight of many agunot whose husbands were missing and presumed dead. The experience made him a dove.


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