Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Israel’s Sephardic Jews, dies at 93

October 7, 2013

Ovadia Yosef, the religious scholar and spiritual leader of Israel’s Sephardic Jews, who transformed his downtrodden community of immigrants from North Africa and Arab nations and their descendants into a powerful force in Israeli politics, died Oct. 7 at a hospital in Jerusalem. He was 93.

Hospital officials confirmed the death and said the cause was kidney failure.

Rabbi Yosef was often called the outstanding Sephardic rabbinical authority of the century. His prominence helped boost the confidence of his community, which makes up roughly half of Israel’s population but was long impoverished and faced discrimination by the Ashkenazi — or European — Jews who traditionally dominated Israel’s government and religious institutions.

Rabbi Yosef parlayed his religious authority into political power, founding Shas, a party representing Sephardic Jews that became a kingmaker in several government coalitions.

His devotion to empowering disenfranchised Sephardim and to religious scholarship won him reverence among his followers, while some of his outspoken pronouncements stirred controversy outside his disciples’ circles.

“What Shas did for the first time in the nation’s history was take democracy and transform it from slogan into reality,” said Avishay Ben Haim, an Israeli author who is writing a doctoral thesis about Rabbi Yosef at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “The Sephardic community voted for itself instead of for others, and this influenced society as a whole. The success of Shas brought with it the success of many Sephardic Jews in academia, music and politics.”

As the party’s following grew since it was established in 1984, Shas — a Hebrew acronym for Sephardic Guardians of the Torah, the Jewish holy book — soon captured enough seats in parliament to make or break all but three of Israel’s governing coalitions. It was shut out of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current coalition by an alliance of parties seeking to break the ultra-Orthodox influence over the budget and draft exemptions for its men.

The Iraqi-born Yosef came to national prominence when he served as Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi from 1972 to 1983. While he was revered by his followers, his critics charged that he exacerbated ethnic tensions between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Israelis.

His ornate outfit, with its gold-trimmed black cape and upswept hat, combined with his ever-
present dark glasses and habitually slurred speech, made him an easy target for caricaturists. He would greet visitors, whether it be followers or prime ministers, with a playful slap to the face.

But he was the charismatic face of his Shas party, with his image plastered on posters, buses and sides of buildings during political campaigns.

Shas first ran in an election in 1984, winning four seats in the 120-seat parliament.

It subsequently grew to 17 seats, the third-largest party after the mainstream Labor and Likud parties. But it was hit by scandals and its leader, Aryeh Deri, was imprisoned on corruption charges in 2000. Shas currently has 11 seats, making it a midsize faction, and sits in the opposition.

Rabbi Yosef’s influence reached beyond the party, and he was known for his fierce statements that offended widely disparate segments of society, including Holocaust survivors, gay people, Palestinians and secular Jews.

He made some of his biggest waves by ruling that Israel may give back parts of the West Bank in exchange for peace, invoking the Jewish concept that preserving life is the highest commandment. In an attack on the 1990-92 government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the rabbi asked: “What have you [Shamir] done to prevent bloodshed?”

“The sanctity of life overrules the slogan of not giving up an inch,” he added.

The ruling countered decrees by other rabbis, who declared that no Jew had a right to hand over any part of the biblical land of Israel to a non-Jew for any reason.

But in recent years he appeared to retreat, emphasizing the religious and security aspects of the West Bank for Israel and backing Jewish settlement there.

The rabbi said during a sermon in August 2010 that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas should “perish from the world” and described Palestinians as “evil, bitter enemies of Israel.” He later apologized.

Ovadia Yosef was born in Baghdad on Sept. 23, 1920. He moved with his family to Palestine before the state of Israel was established, according to the Shas Web site.

Considered an outstanding Jewish scholar in his teens, he was ordained as a rabbi at age 17, according to the Shas party. He spent two years in Cairo as deputy chief rabbi. He left to return to Israel when, during its 1948 war of independence, he thought Egyptian detectives were following him and his stay in Cairo became unpleasant, according to the chief rabbinate’s Web site.

His and his wife, the former Margalit Fattal, had 11 children. She died in 1994, and their son Rabbi Yaakov Yosef died in 2013. Among their surviving children, their son Yitzhak Yosef was elected in 2013 to follow his father as Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, a position he is supposed to hold for the next decade.

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