Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, influential Israeli spiritual leader, dies at 93

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JERUSALEM ISRAEL — Hundreds of Israelis on Monday bid an emotional farewell to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, 93, the former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel.

The spiritual leader died at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital after medical complications from a stroke he suffered at the beginning of the year.

Yosef was considered the leading authority in religious rulings in the realm of Jewish law. He was revered by many Israelis, both secular and religious, in particular those of Eastern origin. This popularity led him to play a unique role in Israel’s nation-building.

He will be remembered for his pivotal influence in Israeli politics after he formed the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party in 1984. Since its founding, the party has almost always been part of the governing coalition, and the rabbi had been a confidant of Israel’s prime ministers.

In September 1993, Shas, under Yosef’s leadership, played an integral role in Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s peace initiative that led to the forming of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza. He interpreted the Halakhic, or Jewish religious law, principle of Pikuach Nefesh to mean that lives that are endangered by the Arab-Israeli conflict can be saved by overruling the commandment to settle the land. His interpretation was taken as the religious endorsement of the two-state solution, which calls for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The rabbi’s political weight in the party’s move to the right was reflected in his opposition to the Israeli government’s decision to disengage from Gaza in September 2005. This time, his interpretation of Pikuach Nefesh led him to conclude that a unilateral withdrawal would threaten the lives of Israelis, and thus the state should abide by the commandment to settle the land.

Today, Shas’ political influence wanes as it sits in the political opposition.

Controversial statements

In a 2001 sermon, according to Israeli media, he referred to “evil and damnable” Palestinians, adding: “You must send missiles to them and annihilate them.”

And in August 2010, Israel Army Radio quoted Yosef as saying that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “and all these evil people should perish from this world. … God should strike them with a plague — them and these Palestinians.”

He was denouncing then-upcoming direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians in Washington. The Palestinian government condemned his statement, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said: “These things do not reflect PM Netanyahu’s approach nor that of the Israeli government.”

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are expected to attend Yosef’s funeral.

By Mike Schwarz

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