the 90 year-old rabbi ovadia yosef is a controversial political and religious figure, to say the least. as emeritus sephardi chief rabbi of israel, the leading sephardi voice in the haredi world and de facto leader of the ultra-religious “shas” party (the only officially zionist haredi party) which forms part of the current israeli coalition government, he is a figure of considerable influence around the world and a key political player in israeli politics, as well as being the perennial winner of the “snazziest traditional get-up, complete with turban and sunglasses” award.
he is also a man of many contradictions. this is the man that gave the principle of “land for peace” the sanction of halakhah (jewish law) – no mean contribution to an eventual settlement – the man who stood up successfully for the rights of the ethiopian jews against the demands of the askhenazi haredi establishment that they convert, who supports the top-level inter-religious dialogue forum known as the alexandria process and a man who has consistently fought for the rights of blue-collar workers with large, traditionalist (but not necessarily that religious) sephardi and mizrahi families, which of course is more or less the majority of shas voters. interestingly enough, the same attributes are also characteristic of most israeli arabs, which has led to the ironic outcome that quite a few of them end up voting shas for the social and economic programmes it supports. it is ironic, of course, because of r. yosef’s tendency (for all that he was born in baghdad and is a native speaker of arabic) to make astoundingly racist and bigoted comments about arabs, usually in his saturday night religious lectures, but also more or less whenever he gets the opportunity. he is also not a stranger to upsetting nearly anyone else; here are a few of his public statements that have contributed a great deal to peace, harmony and reconciliation…..not.
“It is forbidden to be merciful to [arabs]. You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable.”
he later claimed this only referred to arab terrorists, but it hasn’t been forgotten.
“the holocaust was G!D’s retaliation aginst the reincarnated souls of jewish sinners”
this managed to offend all ashkenazim and anyone who didn’t subscribe to the kabbalistic doctrine of the karmic “transmigration of souls”; just call it his glenn hoddle moment.
“Let our enemies and those who hate us die [referring to palestinian authority president abbas] and all these evil people should perish from this world. G!D should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians.”
for which he had to make a grovelling apology to mubarak and others.
referring to the black inhabitants of new orleans as “kushim” – and that hurricane katrina was george bush’s punishment for supporting the gaza disengagement, enough said.
on why non-religious israeli soldiers get killed:
“They don’t observe the Sabbath, they don’t observe the Torah, they don’t pray, they don’t put on phylacteries every day. Is it any wonder that they’re killed? It’s no wonder. May the Almighty have mercy on them and bring them back to religion.”
let’s forget for a moment that he expects these people to fight while his own supporters sit about studying Torah on government stipends; pheuuwww.
and the latest delightful remark, of course, is this:
“The sole purpose of non-Jews is to serve Jews. 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.”
i mean, really? is this what judaism has survived 3,000 years for? if this is what judaism is about, i’ll eat my own tefillin. what are we to make of this embarrassment? his opinions, especially the most recent, beggar belief. there is no apparent successor to his credibility; aryeh deri was once touted as such, but got jailed for fraud and racketeering (although admittedly there was quite a lot of racism involved in the prosecution as well, you don’t see the askhenazi rabbonim getting investigated although they’re just as bad). eli yishai, the leader of the shas party in the knesset, is widely regarded as a parochial sock puppet who gives little away to yosef in the outspoken bigotry stakes. shmuel eliyahu, another provincial powerbroker, has just caused another outcry with a disgusting call for jews not to rent property to arabs.
my own opinion, frankly, is that he’s senile or, quite possibly, has had some kind of minor stroke; it is not uncommon for such people to vocalise prejudices that they had previously known enough to avoid saying out loud. of course, that’s not really any excuse, he shouldn’t be thinking like that in the first place. all in all, this is a deplorable state of affairs for the religious leadership of the world’s sephardic and mizrahi jews to be in. there was a time when r. yosef provided principled leadership (not just land for peace, he also opposes ladies’ wigs); in fact, there was a time when sephardi and mizrahi rabbis were the intellectual and philosophical élite, the most cultured, the most urbane and the most open-minded. clearly this era is long over; i’m not a great enthusiast for the doctrine of the “decline of the generations“, but i have to admit this is pretty persuasive stuff in its favour, certainly the current leadership provides very little reason for optimism. roll on the next generation; at least we can see some changes happening at grass-roots level with the new rabbis coming through, but it will be a long time before this filters up to the oxygen-poor, brain-dead level of israeli religious politics.