A Mixed Legacy

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Jerusalem on Monday night witnessed approx. 800,000 attendees at the funeral of rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the leader of the Sephardic Jewish community, a former chief rabbi of Israel and the supreme guide of the Shas political party, who died at the age of 93. The sheer number of mourners was a testament to Yosef’s magnetism and scholarship, as well as to the work he did to lift up his community, the once-aggrieved Mizrachim (Jews from Arab countries).

Much of the coverage of Yosef’s death has understandably focused on the major role he played in the lives of Mizrachim in Israel and his important permissive religious rulings (such as the highly controversial judgment in that it was permissible as a matter of Jewish law for the state to exchange territory for peace, or his permitting the remarriage of Yom Kippur War widows), yet much of it has circumvented the unfortunate fact that Yosef was also a fundamentalist who created a corrupt party that coarsened Israeli politics, held a medieval belief in a vindictive God, and made awful pronouncements on the moral and personal qualities of those of different races, religions and political views.

Yosef blamed misfortune and death on apostasy, irreligiosity and homosexuality. “Is it any wonder if, heaven forbid, soldiers are killed in a war? They don’t observe the Sabbath, they don’t observe the Torah, they don’t pray, they don’t put on Tefillin (phylacteries) every day. Is it any wonder that they’re killed? It’s no wonder” Yosef said about Israeli soldiers killed in action. He even blamed the deaths of Jews during the Holocaust on the spiritual deficiencies of their ancestors.

In 2005, he argued that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for the Gaza withdrawal and for the alleged godlessness of the black residents of New Orleans. “There was a tsunami and there are terrible natural disasters, because there isn’t enough Torah study,” he said. “Tens of thousands have been killed. All of this because they have no God.” He went on to argue that the deaths were also punishment directed at President Bush for pressuring Sharon to remove Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip. “It was God’s retribution,” he said. “God does not short-change anyone.”

Yosef’s excoriations of Israeli politicians were legendary. In the last election, Yosef  said this about the leadership of the right-wing Jewish Home party: “Those are religious people? They come to uproot the Torah. Those who elect them deny the Torah, this is the Jewish Home? This is the Jewish Home of the gentiles.” Indeed, the most devastating insult Yosef could throw at a Jew was to label him a gentile. He held gentiles in general contempt. “Goyim were born only to serve us,” he said in a 2010. “Without that, they have no place in the world – only to serve the people of Israel.”

Of Muslims, he said, “They’re stupid. Their religion is as ugly as they are.” His hatred of Palestinians was obvious. Speaking of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his aides, Yosef said, “All these evil people should perish from this world. God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians.”

Despite these statements, Abbas was one of the many local and international dignitaries who expressed condolences on learning of Yosef’s death. I suppose he did so for the same reason President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu did – because Yosef represented a vast and powerful political constituency in Israel.

To his defense, once could claim that these prejudices came late in his life (though not all of them did), or that they were the product of his upbringing, as a Jew who was both discriminated against by Muslims and who led an ethnic group that suffered at their hands.

Yet while paying the due respect to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef for his scholarship I can’t dismiss bigotry and racism when I see it.  Prejudice is prejudice, no matter if it is emitted from the mouth of a Muslim imam, a Christian priest or a Jewish rabbi. Yosef leaves behind a mixed legacy, but I can only hope that his successors preserve the humane spirit that underlined his earlier rulings.

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