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Highly Influential (and Controversial) Israeli Rabbi Ovadia Yosef Dead at 93

Ovadia Yosef (Photo: Wikipedia)

Ovadia Yosef (Photo: Wikipedia)

A highly influential Israeli rabbi and spiritual leader of an ultra-orthodox Jewish political party who once called for the ‘annihilation’ of the Palestinian people has died at the age of 93.

The Jerusalem Post reports Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the ultra-orthodox Shas party and a champion for the rights of Sephardic Jews, passed away at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem on Monday. Following the announcement of Yosef’s death, some 700,000 people– or about 10 percent of Israel’s population– poured into the city’s streets to witness his funeral procession and pay their respects to a man Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called “one of the great Torah sages of our generation.” The Times of Israel reports 800,000 mourners converged from all over Israel for the largest funeral in the nation’s history.

“Rav Ovadia was a giant in Torah and halacha and a spiritual leader for tens of thousands,” Netanyahu said. “He worked hard to enhance Jewish heritage, and at the same time his rulings took into consideration the times and realities of renewed life in the State of Israel. He was imbued with a love of Torah and his people. I very much appreciated his warm personality and his direct manner.”

“When I pressed his hand, I felt like I was touching history,” said Israeli President Shimon Peres, who visited Yosef in the hospital just hours before his death. “When I kissed his head, it was as though I kissed the very greatness of Israel.”

Born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1920, Yosef’s family emigrated to what was then the British Mandate of Palestine when he was four years old. An outstanding religious scholar, he was ordained a rabbi at the age of 20 and later rose to political prominence advocating for the rights of Sephardic Jews. He married Margalit Fattal, the daughter of an influential Syrian rabbi, in 1924 and raised 11 children with her.

In 1970, Yosef was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for Torah Literature. Three years later, he was appointed Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel.

In 1984, Shas was founded under his spiritual leadership. It has since become the fourth-largest party in the Knesset, or parliament, and, according to the Jewish Daily Forward is now “the unchallenged kingmaker of Israeli politics.”

Some of Yosef’s religious rulings raised eyebrows, such as when he allowed women whose husbands went missing during the 1973 Yom Kippur War to remarry without obtaining bills of divorce or proof their men were dead, or when he proclaimed that it was permissible for Israel to return territory stolen from the Palestinians– although he did not use the term ‘stolen’– in exchange for potential peace on the grounds that under Jewish law saving lives is paramount.

But after the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, began following the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 2000, Yosef’s tone towards the Palestinians– and Israeli leaders who sought to make peace with them– grew much harsher.

Speaking about Arabs in a 2001 sermon, Yosef reportedly said that “it is forbidden to be merciful to them. You must send missiles to them and annihilate them” because “they are evil and damnable.” The rabbi claimed his sermon was misquoted, but multiple Israeli leaders, including the justice minister, condemned the remarks.

When then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon advocated the unilateral withdrawal from the illegally-occupied Gaza Strip in 2005, Yosef called him “cruel and evil” and predicted that “God will strike him with one blow and he will die.” The following year, Sharon suffered a massive stroke and remains in a coma.

In 2010, Yosef denounced upcoming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and again called for the destruction of the Palestinian people.

“[Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] and all these evil people should perish from this world,” Yosef said in another sermon. “God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu distanced himself from Yosef’s inflammatory comments, stating that the rabbi’s words “do not reflect my approach or the stand of the Israeli government.”

Yosef also repeatedly expressed the notion, which he claimed was validated by Jewish law and scripture, that gentiles existed on this earth to serve Jews.

“Goyim (non-Jews) were born only to serve us,” he said during an October 2010 sermon. “Without that, they have no place in the world; only to serve the people of Israel.”

“Why are gentiles needed?” he continued. “They will work, they will plow, they will reap. We will sit like an effendi and eat. That is why gentiles were created.” Yosef also compared non-Jews to “donkeys.” The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee both condemned Yosef’s remarks, with the latter calling them “abhorrent and an offense to human dignity and human equality.”

Yosef’s controversial commentary extended far beyond the Middle East. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated much of the US Gulf Coast and killed more than 1,800 people in 2005, the rabbi proclaimed the deadly storm was ‘God’s’ revenge for black Americans failing to read the Jewish holy texts and for US support for a two-state solution in Palestine.

“There are terrible natural disasters because there isn’t enough Torah study,” Yosef opined. “Black people reside there (in New Orleans). Blacks will study the Torah? [God said] let’s bring a tsunami and drown them. Hundreds of thousands remain homeless. Tens of thousands have been killed,” he erroneously said of Katrina. “All this because they have no God.”

Yosef added that Katrina was also ‘God’s’ punishment for then-President George W. Bush’s support for the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

“It was God’s retribution,” he said. “God does not short-change anyone.”

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