Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader for Sephardic Jews, dies aged 93

Rabbi who was inspiration for Sephardic Jews was dubbed as Israel's Ayatollah by critics

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 October, 2013, 12:04pm

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, an Iraqi-born sage who turned an Israeli underclass of Sephardic Jews of Middle Eastern heritage into a powerful political force, died yesterday aged 93, plunging masses of followers into mourning.

Dubbed Israel's Ayatollah by critics who condemned many of his pronouncements as racist - he likened Palestinians to snakes and said God put gentiles on earth only to serve Jews - Yosef was revered by many traditional Sephardic Jews as their supreme religious leader. The news prompted Israeli President Shimon Peres to cut short a working meeting with his Czech counterpart Milos Zeman and rush to the rabbi's bedside.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed deep sorrow, saying the Jewish people had lost "one of the wisest men of this generation".

Netanyahu added: "He was filled with love of the Torah and the people. I very much appreciated his convivial personality and his directness." His death sparked an outpouring of emotion within the Sephardi community, with Shas leader Arye Deri openly sobbing as he expressed his grief. "We are all alone," he wept, referring to the rabbi as "our father".

Yosef founded Shas in 1984 on the platform of a return to religion and as a counter to an establishment dominated by Ashkenazi Jews of European ancestry.

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

Despite the rabbi's often sharp-tongued outbursts, he had for many years been an advocate of peace talks with the Palestinians based on his respect for the sanctity of life, explained Jerusalem Post religious affairs correspondent Jeremy Sharon.

"Yosef thought that if a peace process could be conducted with Palestinians and save lives, then territorial compromises could be considered," he said.

But following the failure of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords to bring about an end to the conflict with the Palestinians, Yosef shifted politically to the right.

Nonetheless, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was quick to pass on his "condolences to Yosef's family" during a meeting with Israeli lawmakers.

Yosef is survived by 11 children, including a son who is the chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel. His wife Margalit died in 1994.

Reuters, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse