Ovadia Yosef, an ultra-orthodox Sephardic Israeli rabbi whose popularity among religious Israelis, particularly those whose families came to Israel from the Arab world, led to the creation of the Shas movement and a hard lurch right in Israeli politics, is being praised throughout Israel after his passing today.
Hundreds of thousands of his supporters took the streets of Jerusalem to mourn. Former Israeli President Shimon Peres visited with Mr. Yosef at his hospital bedside just hours before he passed, tenderly kissing his hand and forehead, according to The Jerusalem Post. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a statement issued by his office, spoke of his "profound grief" and said that "the Jewish People have lost one of the wisest men of his generation."
There is no doubt that Yosef is a major figure in Israeli political and social history – he arrived in Israel at the age of four, in the mid-1920s, and the power of the political movement he built is responsible for the public praise he's garnering today. But Yosef's undisguised bigotry and religious political extremism could also prove awkward for politicians like Mr. Netanyahu, who just last week complained that Iranians aren't allowed to wear jeans or listen to Western music by the country's own religious extremists (never mind that neither of his assertions were true).
Netanyahu has been campaigning of late against any rapprochement between the US and Iran, warning that seeming Iranian willingness to negotiate over its nuclear program is a trap and that the Islamic Republic's leaders are fundamentally unstable and untrustworthy.
"They’re governed by Ayatollah Khamenei. He heads a cult. That cult is wild in its ambitions and its aggression,” Netanyahu told NBC last week. In his speech at the UN last month, he complained of the "fanaticism" of Iran's religiously based state.
Yet he and many Israeli leaders embrace and praise Yosef, the Baghdad-born cleric who served as Israel's chief Sephardi rabbi for a decade before focusing on direct political power. His religiously inspired views have given more political power to clerics in Israel, and his ultimate agenda frightened non-Jews.
For instance, in 2010 he said in a weekly Saturday night sermon that the sole purpose God put non-Jews on earth was to be servants to Jews.
"Goyim (gentiles, non-Jews) were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world – only to serve the People of Israel," he said, according to the Jerusalem Post. "Why are gentiles needed? They will work, they will plow, they will reap. We will sit like an effendi and eat. That is why gentiles were created." An "effendi" is a lord, or a master, in Arabic.
Yosef also favored the large number of ultra-Orthodox men who eschew modern education, focus only on Torah study, and are exempted from military service in Israel while largely subsisting on government handouts.
It was his comments about non-Jews that were the ugliest. In 2010 he said of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the people he leads that "all these evil people should perish from this world. God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians."
On Arabs in general, he said in 2001, "It is forbidden to be merciful to them. You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable." In 2009 he said of Muslims "their religion is as ugly as they are."
That sort of rhetoric, when heard from Arab or Iranian clerics directed towards Israelis or Jews in general is usually (and rightly) harshly condemned by Israeli leaders like Netanyahu as beyond the pale.
Yosef also had regressive views on the role of women and gays in society. In 2007, angry that many Ashkenazi rabbis supported allowing women to say a blessing over Shabbat candles after they'd been lit, he said: "Women should make (stew) and not deal with matters of the Torah." He said that any disagreement with him was the fault of "a few stupid women. A woman's knowledge is only in sewing."
As for gays and lesbians, he said they were "completely evil."
To be sure, it's not just in Israel where Yosef was popular. Bill de Blasio, the democrat who's the current front-runner to be mayor of New York, had this to say about the departed rabbi today:
Millions of people around the world lost a leader today in Rabbi Chacham Ovadia Yosef. His wisdom, charity and sensitivity were legendary.— Bill de Blasio (@BilldeBlasio) October 7, 2013