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Rabbi Ovadia Yosef: Racist, Political Boss, Yes. “Spiritual Leader?” Not So Much

ovadia yosef

Former Shas leader, Eli Yishai, offering respect to Rabbi Yosef

The NY Times and Israeli media are filled with articles memorializing Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who died at the age of 93 two days ago.  He was the leader of the Shas movement.  It’s hard to pin down precisely what Shas is.  Certainly a political movement with Knesset members who dish out traditional pork-like (in the sense of politics, not food) benefits.  Certainly a movement that offers Mizrahi Jews a strong measure of ethnic pride.  But is it a religious movement?  Does Yosef deserve the title, “Israel’s spiritual leader,” which the Times and so many others have accorded him?

To the extent that Shas followers are Orthodox (and most are), it is a religious movement.  But that phrase deserves an asterisk.  Though Yosef was a rabbi and his followers were observant Jews, Shas is a hybrid (or more aptly, a mongrel).  Shas’ real significance isn’t so much its religious role as its political one.  It is a power base for Mizrahi Jews, who are shut out of Israel’s mainstream in so many other ways.  Shas, like Hamas, is all things to its followers: it gets them jobs, offers them welfare, educates their children, offers all manner of support.  It’s a combination of  the Vatican and Tammany Hall.  It’s motto (in American slang) might be: “Gonna get me mine.”

Judaism as practiced in Israel by many of its Orthodox adherents is little more than a racket.  Rabbis competing to be chief rabbi physically assault their opponents and heap epithets on them.  These learned sages operate their fiefdoms like little feudal barons doling out lucrative kashrut certifications, preventing men and women from marrying, divorcing, or attaining citizenship sometimes based on little more than whim or prejudice.   In the case of Women of the Wall, these rabbis enlist the Israeli police to rough up and arrest their Jewish enemies in order to prevent them from access to religious sites.

Returning to Shas and Yosef, if Israel was not such a racist, hierarchical society, then Mizrahim would be far-better integrated and enjoy a higher level of success and achievement.  Then corrupt (Shas’ penultimate leader went to jail on a corruption charge), pork-barrel groups like Shas wouldn’t have to exist.  But Israel is dominated by Ashkenazim who control power, both political and economic.

One thing’s for sure: calling Ovadia Yosef a “spiritual leader” does a grave disservice to those who truly are spiritual leaders.  Even Yosef’s religious edicts were highly politicized.  Some years ago, just after Hurricane Katrina virtually destroyed New Orleans, Yosef told his believers that the Hurricane wiped out the city because African-Americans neglected their Bible study and because George Bush supported the Gaza withdrawal.  Which of course is laughable because African-Americans, one of America’s most highly-churched groups, know their Bible far better than their Jewish counterparts.  Yosef also taught that non-Jews were created by the Lord to serve Jews.  And he meant this literally and even used the term “donkey” as a comparison.

Reuters adds these other “bon mots” of the saintly rabbi:

Dubbed ‘Israel’s Ayatollah’ by critics who condemned many of his pronouncements as racist – he likened Palestinians to snakes…

“Abu Mazen and all these evil people should perish from this world,” Yosef said in a sermon in 2010, referring to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians.”

Yosef also drew fire from Israelis when he once suggested that six million Jews had died in the Nazi Holocaust because they were reincarnated souls of sinners.

No doubt, Yosef’s followers saw him as a saintly figure.  A friend who is a learned Orthodox Jew actually long ago admired Yosef for what he called his “progressive” halachic rulings.  Here is a Facebook posting from a Bar Ilan University graduate offering his own encomium:

The most significant religious-spiritual authority since the state of Israel formed, and the greatest icon of the sefaradi judaism, beyond being a leading and breakthrough religious arbiter in the eyes of the historic judaism.

If he had retired from public life twenty years ago, he might rightly be lauded for his positive role.  But instead, he lingered and made a laughingstock out of himself, Shas, and those Mizrahim who worshipped him.

700,000 Israelis attended his funeral.  When you consider that only 20-30% of Israel’s 7-million are Orthodox, it’s a remarkable number, indicating that some secular Jews also admired him.  But that is only 10% of all Israelis and an even smaller percentage of world Jewry.  So I think a high level of skepticism is called for in according Yosef an honor most Jews did not believe he deserved.

Someone ought to tell erstwhile progressive New York mayoral candidate, Bill deBlasio who and what he’s endorsing in lamenting the late rabbi’s passing:

Bill de Blasio’s office issued a statement hailing the “wisdom, charity and sensitivity” of [Rabbi Yosef].

Note that New York City electoral politics are, in some senses, not that dissimilar from Israeli politics.  Democratic candidates all have to kowtow to the Lubavitcher rebbe and in this case, the large Sephardi population in Brooklyn devoted to Yosef.  These religious communities tend to vote en masse and as the “spiritual leader” tells them to.  Just as with Yosef and Shas!

The following is precisely the sort of inflated assessment that Yosef does not deserve:

“He was the rabbi of all the Jewish people, not just of one sector,” said Tel Aviv’s Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau.

If you do want to call him that, then Yosef was the rabbi of a racist, hateful religion that disdained non-Jews as something less than human.  Is that what we believe about Judaism?  Not my Judaism, that’s for sure.  Rav Yosef no more represents Judaism than Osama bin Laden represents Islam.

{ 17 comments… add one }
  • Oui October 9, 2013, 1:36 AM

    A major difference: Netanyahu Pressuring Rabbi Yosef to Support Iran Strike.

    Rabbi Yosef withstood political pressure and asked for prayers in the destruction of Iran. :-)

    It was time for the Rabbi to meet his creator.

    • Richard Silverstein October 9, 2013, 2:13 AM

      @ Oui: To his credit, my understanding is that Yosef remained opposed to bombing Iran. Of course, he would’ve been delighted had it been struck by a plague (a fate he wished on the Palestinians). But he never went along with the warmongers like Bibi & Barak.

  • SimoHurtta October 9, 2013, 4:37 AM

    700,000 Israelis attended his funeral. When you consider that only 20-30% of Israel’s 7-million are Orthodox, it’s a remarkable number, indicating that some secular Jews also admired him. But that is only 10% of all Israelis and an even smaller percentage of world Jewry.

    700,000 Israeli Jews are 12.7 % of the 5.5 million Israeli Jews. Of those 700,000 most probably very few were Israeli Arabs. The term Israeli is a bit problematic in cases where the Israelis represent mostly only the Israeli Jews. Saying Israelis like ice-cream would be “justified”. But would saying “Israelis support road block treatment on occupied areas” accurately be describing the opinion of Israelis, even its clear that 20 percent of the population, the Israeli Arab citizens, are against it, but the majority of Jews (75 %) support?

    700,000 attending the funeral is a astonishing amount even Israel is a small country in area. Of course this kind of collective show of respect is a clear sign that Rabbi Yosef was besides some kind of political authority especially a very important religious/spiritual leader for huge part of Israeli Jews (less for other Israelis). The extreme views Rabbi Yosef represented certainly also the views of numerous Israeli Jews, even few of them would dare to say to us Gentiles “you are a donkey and your life’s only purpose is to serve me the master”. Many of those Rabbi Josef’s controversial views show that Jewish religious/nationalistic exceptionalism is dangerous, the masses start to believe in those views. Not all but (too) many.

    Comparing Rabbi Yosef’s and Osama bin Laden’s influence/status is a bit strange because bin Laden was no religious leader. Rabbi Yosef clearly was. Certainly Rabbi Yosef’s influence “level” was closer to that influence of the Pope than the influence of some Arab terrorist ideologist. The Pope doesn’t represent the view of all Christianity. He is also only a spiritual leader for a part of Christians (the Roman Catholics).

    • Bob Mann October 9, 2013, 5:33 AM

      “Comparing Rabbi Yosef’s and Osama bin Laden’s influence/status is a bit strange because bin Laden was no religious leader. Rabbi Yosef clearly was.”

      That is a very good point. I wonder if a better comparison might be the Ayatolla/Supreme Leader of Iran or the Grand Imam of al-Azhar.

    • Richard Silverstein October 9, 2013, 8:37 PM

      @ SimoHurtta: So that Caliphate which Al Qaeda plans to establish is not a relgious construct? And Bin Laden & Al Qaeda don’t see themselves as a religious movement? Um, I think you might want to rethink that statement. The only difference between Bin Laden and Yosef is that Yosef didn’t have an army. But he didn’t need one because he had the IDF. Yosef was a political leader with religious trappings in the same way Bin Laden was.

      • SimoHurtta October 10, 2013, 2:44 AM

        Well is Klu Klux Klan a Christian movement with its cross symbols and rhetoric and so its leader a spiritual and political leader to be compared with bin Laden or more with Rabbi Yosef?

        Comparing Rabbi Yosef to Bin Laden gives to much credit to Bin Laden. Of course Bin Laden used much religion in his rhetoric and but he was no respected/acknowledged scholar in religious studies neither did he have a position in the official or unofficial religion’s clerical hierarchy. Rabbi Yosef was on the top of Judaism’s “official” hierarchy and was a respected scholar in Jewish religious studies. Judaism is as much or even more central part of politics in Israel as Islam is in Muslim countries. So a Rabbi, especially the Chiefs of them, can also be seen as active political leaders.

        Of course Rabbi Yosef and Bin Laden had common nominators in the process when religions have been turned to a very dangerous weapon. Rabbi Yosef among others (religious and political leaders in Israel) have turned much of Judaism to the level we can see best in the opinions what Rabbi Yosef expressed. The masses of Israeli Jews youth marching through Jerusalem’s Arab areas shouting hysterically “Death to Mohammed” with waving flags are a result from long term successful religious propaganda and religious interpretations of all those rabbis and politicians. So is that what Israel has become. Rabbis have had a essential role in shaping this present Israel’s psyche.

        Rabbi Yosef was a much more dangerous man than Bin Laden as a financier and a relative blurry ideologist of Al Qaida ever could be seen. The followers of this Rabbi in question and other Rabbis have a own country with hundreds of nukes and very strong army. The few tens of thousand followers Bin Laden have AK-47’s, long beards and a fierce mentality (and some money), but not very much else.

        When this all sometimes will blow in the faces of Israeli Jews, which will happen inevitably, do we Gentile donkeys and our Jewish masters (expressed in Rabbi Yosef’s “language”) blame for that Bin Laden or those like Rabbi Yosef, who were essential in that long building process of the modern Jewish/Israeli religious racist exeptionalism and how its now carried out?

    • ben October 12, 2013, 10:14 AM

      A lot of people wanted more to arrive from abroad
      But there was not enough time

  • Sol October 9, 2013, 8:41 AM

    It doesn’t seem reasonable to limit the numbers of Jews who revered Yosef to only those who attended his funeral; surely only a fraction of his admirers did!!! I would place his number of admirers at 2 million, or three times the number at the funeral. Could be more.

  • Bob Mann October 9, 2013, 10:27 AM

    He wasn’t racist. He directed much of his ire at his fellow, less-observant Jews. He called for the death of Ariel Sharon and said that Israeli soldiers were killed in Lebanon due to their not being religious enough. For all the disdain he had for Palestinians, he had a special and personal loathing of non-practicing Jews. He dreamed of being to dance on the grave of the head of Meretz as well.

    • Richard Silverstein October 10, 2013, 1:13 AM

      @ Bob Mann: Ah, so instead of being merely a racist, he was a Jew hater as well? Or was it that he only hated certain Jews, the bad ones? Or was he a misanthrope, hating all equally?

      • Bob Mann October 10, 2013, 7:16 AM

        I just think his disdainful comments about various people are unrelated to their race. He was definitely not a misanthrope.

        • Piotr Berman October 13, 2013, 6:20 AM

          “… not a misanthrope.” Some of my best friends are human! Why, some of the best friends of Mussolini were Jews (or Jewesses).

      • Yastreblyansky October 11, 2013, 10:36 AM

        Yes–the fact that he called for Sharon’s death doesn’t make him a non-racist, just a racist with some other psychopathologies.

        I want to say about Bill DeBlasio that although he is proving to be very unenlightened about Middle East issues in a very boring New York politician way (in addition to silly remarks about Yosef he has run a campaign to boycott companies doing business with Iran http://www.wnyc.org/story/politics-bill-de-blasios-iran-watchlist/?utm_source=sharedUrl&utm_media=metatag&utm_campaign=sharedUrl) this should not deter New Yorkers from supporting him. He’s only a politician. He is wonderful on subjects he understands and will be a great mayor in spite of this foolishness.

  • Daniel F. October 9, 2013, 10:14 PM

    Although I was bewildered by many of his statements condemning secular Jews, train crash victims, women and others,I was nevertheless inspired by many of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s rulings.
    The ruling that springs to mind is the one that says because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict endangers human lives, the principle of “pikuach nefesh” requires that commandments requiring settlement of the land of Israel be ignored if their fulfillment might cause loss of life.


    Another is that the power of leniency is greater than the power of strictness and should be applied (in order to bring Jews closer to the Torah…strict rulings alienate Jews from the Halakha (religious laws for Jews)) …..being strict comes by itself, while being lenient is something that we need to learn.

    • Sol October 10, 2013, 8:45 AM

      Keep in mind Daniel that he changed his position after the Second Intifada, concluding that giving away land is what leads to Jews being killed, and that Arafat had “tricked” Israel. Thus it is pikuach nefesh NOT to give land, in his revised view. This is why he then opposed the withdrawal from Gaza, and cursed Ariel Sharon. Many of his followers believe that Sharon’s coma is a result of this curse.

      Despite his controversial statements (to say the least) you are correct that he also had a moderate streak when it came to halachic rulings. These two sides of him are in tension, in my opinion.

      • Piotr Berman October 13, 2013, 6:37 AM

        I guess that in halachic rulings and other writing Yosef was consistently moderate, it was not a streak. One should keep in mind two things. One is that the moderate/strict controversy is between two kinds of deeply medieval outlook. The second is that he advocated utmost deference to Sephardim sage Joseph Karo (expelled from Spain and later Portugal in his childhood). However, Karo practiced utmost modesty and ascetism, while Yosef was vain and power hungry (just see the picture above).

        For some reasons, the extremist rabbis in Israel tend to be Ashkenazim, and with that background, Yosef had something to admire. But in either cases, it is sad not to see any universalist moral philosophy. “Pikua nehesh” or whatever, except for a fringe the rabbis consider things not in terms of universal justice but “what is good for Jews”.

  • Ray October 15, 2013, 7:25 AM

    Wrong, Wrong and Wrong again , much of these comments
    attributed to this Great Rav have been taken out of context and
    have deliberately been fed upon and misinterpreted by the white
    left wing secular media in Israel who hate the Rabbi and his Shas
    party which did so much to fight institutional discrimination
    against the mizrahi jews. What astonishes me is how gullible and
    racist are those who have accepted it at face value without any
    attempt to investigate the matter properly. How many for instance
    know that these supposed comments have always arisen at the end of
    his Saturday night religious lectures when he answers questions
    from his audience. These lectures are televised to synagogues in
    Israel. You might ask your self what are secular journalists doing
    listening in on the Rabbis lectures? Its certainly not for
    spiritual enlightenment. Its for mischief. Check before you abuse,
    criticise and accuse.

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