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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That said, he didn’t always sound dovish. In comments that seemed to refer in general terms to Arabs, Yosef said in 2001: “’It is forbidden to be merciful to them. You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable.” He later claimed that he was only referring to terrorists.

In 2010 he drew widespread criticism, including from the U.S. State Department, after he described Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian people as “our enemies and haters… May they vanish from the world, may God smite them with the plague, them and the Palestinians, evil-doers and Israel haters.” He then sent out a conciliatory message, writing to then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that he wanted to see Israel talking to Abbas’ Palestinian Authority. “My position has been known and clear for decades, on the importance of achieving peace while preserving the security of the nation of Israel,” he assured Mubarak.

While the apparent contradiction between his stances on peace and Arabs has been much discussed, there was no real mystery behind it. He employed a provocative way of speaking on a wide range of topics, including secular schools where children become “evil,” Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whom he likened to the Biblical villain Haman, and the religious-Zionist Jewish Home party, which he called a “home for gentiles.” In the post-Oslo era of widespread pessimism about the peace, Yosef tapped in to this mood and expressed his frustrations.

On an ideological level, he was happy for Shas to play a supporting role in a peace process, but not to lead. As times when the right wing has been dominant he has happily sent Shas into its governments, and with characteristic pragmatism he used its ideology to his advantage. Settlement building offered the opportunity for relatively cheap new homes which have gone a long way to finding solutions to the socio-economic problems of Shas’s electorate, and with a stagnant peace process, Yosef had no hesitation in making Shas pro-West Bank construction.

Despite Yosef’s many achievements, one of his key projects failed. He had hoped to standardize the religious practice of Sephardi Jews in Israel in line with the teachings of the 16th-century scholar Yosef Karo, author of the authoritative guide to rabbinic law, the Shulchan Aruch. But this vision found little community support .

As his health deteriorated in recent weeks there were signs that Yosef was deeply concerned for his legacy. While his reputation among his followers as a rabbi and leader was guaranteed, he feared that the current government’s determination to draft Haredim into the army could threaten the religious culture that he did so much to strengthen. He also worried that the emboldened religious-Zionist Jewish Home party would sideline Shas’ power in the religious establishment.

Yosef died deeply disappointed after Shas took up its position in the opposition benches, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose a coalition with Yesh Atid and Jewish Home instead of with Shas. Yosef liked to compare Shas to a mezuzah, the talisman placed in a doorway to ensure the home’s Jewish identity. As far as he was concerned, one of his worst fears played out: he left Israel without a “mezuzah” on its government.

The Forward would like to acknowledge the input of Shas expert Nissim Leon, Director, Graduate Program in Social and Cultural Studies at Bar Ilan University, to this article.


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