Remembering Ovadia Yosef, the Israeli Ayatollah
More than 700,000 people gathered in Jerusalem yesterday to mourn the death of a great sage, Ovadia Yosef, a former chief rabbi of Israel and the supreme guide of the Shas political party.
The country had never before seen a funeral of this size. The mass 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 (and still occasionally put-upon) Mizrachim, or Jews from Arab countries. (Yosef was himself born in Baghdad and served as a rabbi in Cairo.)
The party Yosef created made him a kingmaker in Israeli politics (read Noah Feldman's incisive look at Yosef's revolutionary role in transforming Israeli political culture), and he was perhaps best known, beyond the walls of ultra-Orthodoxy, for his ruling that it would be permissible under Jewish law to cede biblical land to Palestinians if lives would be saved by doing so.
Much of the coverage of Yosef's death has focused on the transformative role he played in the lives of Mizrachim. But much of it has neglected to mention the unfortunate fact that Yosef was a mean-spirited fundamentalist who created a corrupt party that coarsened Israeli politics, held a medieval belief in a vindictive God, and made abominable pronouncements on the moral and personal qualities of those of different races, religions and political views.
I spend a lot of time in this space highlighting the corrosive anti-Semitism of such figures as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian leader, and Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the extremist Al Jazeera televangelist. It's unpleasant but necessary to note that Israel, too, has its share of religious fanatics. Yosef was his country's most eminent. It's true that he endorsed (as a theoretical matter) the idea of Israeli withdrawal from territories captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. But when former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon argued for a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Yosef said, "God will strike him with one blow and he will die. He will sleep and not awake." (Some of Yosef's followers were ecstatic -- I saw their ecstasy with my own eyes -- when Sharon later suffered a stroke.)
In the manner of the crudest fundamentalists everywhere, Yosef blamed misfortune and death on apostasy, irreligiosity and homosexuality (gay people, in his eyes, were "completely evil"). About Israeli soldiers who fell in battle, Yosef once said, "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 phylacteries every day. Is it any wonder that they're killed? It's no wonder." Even more famously, he 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 -- if that's the word for it -- that the deaths were also punishment directed at President George W. 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."
The most devastating insult Yosef could muster against 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 sermon. "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."
Yosef's defenders will note that Abbas was one of the many dignitaries who expressed his condolences on learning of Yosef's death. Abbas did so for the same reason Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did: because Yosef represented a vast and powerful political constituency.
Defenders of Yosef will also argue that his outbursts and prejudices came late in 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. Yosef's apologists also argue that the good work he did -- on behalf of war widows, for instance -- mitigates the damage of his egregious words.
Sorry, no: Prejudice is prejudice, whether it comes from an imam in Qatar or from the man whose Jewish critics labeled him, correctly, the "Israeli ayatollah."
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)