Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who died Sunday at age 93, confounds anyone who claims to understand Israeli society in simple terms. He was perhaps the most powerful rabbi in Israel for the last quarter century, yet he was also a canny political kingmaker who presided over a network of graft and corruption. He was progressive on some matters of Jewish law, yet deeply reactionary on others. And perhaps most confusingly to Westerners, he was an outspoken advocate of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, while at the same time calling Arabs “evil and damnable” on more than one occasion.
Yet the seeming contradictions of this man reflect those of Israel itself, and understanding them is essential to understanding the complexities of the Israel/Palestine conflict.
Israeli Jewish society is radically un-homogenous. From the outside, especially from the perspective of the Israel/Palestine conflict, the Jewish population of the Jewish state may seem to be a solid entity. But from within, it is in fact multiple societies, occasionally banding together but more often at war with one another. Secular Ashkenazi elites, the ultra-Orthodox, the National-Religious, and, most relevant to Rabbi Yosef, Mizrachi (“Eastern”) Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, are all separate social groups who may bump up against one another on the street but lead very different lives with very different values and worldviews.
Although there have been Mizrachi Jews in Palestine for hundreds of years, the bulk of the Mizrachi population immigrated in the 1950s, in response to anti-Jewish violence in Arab countries, economic opportunity, and the promises of Zionism. What they found, however, was an entrenched Ashkenazi elite with European values and European racism. To many Ashkenazim, these new immigrants were uneducated, uncultured, and brown. That prejudice, combined with the very real economic crises of the state’s first decade, led to an entire underclass of brown-skinned Mizrachi Jews working in low-paying jobs, living in sub-standard housing (often trailer parks), and excluded from the institutions of privilege.
By the late 1970s, this situation had become unbearable. Some Mizrachim openly rebelled, forming the Israeli version of the Black Panther party. Most aligned themselves with the Likud, the opposition to the Ashkenazi-dominated Labor party, propelling the Likud to power for the first time in 1976, and to this day comprising the party’s base—much as white Southerners do for the Republican Party, or unions and people of color do for the Democrats.
Ovadia Yosef, however, took a different path. During his ten years as Sephardic Chief Rabbi, and especially after founding the Shas political party in 1984, he created an entirely different model of Mizrachi/Sephardi self-sufficiency. (Though all Mizrachim are Sephardic, not all Sephardim are Mizrachi; Sephardic is essentially a religious designation and an imperfect fit with Mizrachi culture and ethnicity) Shas, rather like Hamas in Palestine, is both a social and political movement. It operates schools and community centers, and takes seats in parliament. Rabbi Yosef was its undisputed leader—spiritual and material—yet never himself stood for office.
The result of this unusual arrangement, however, was a perfect circuit of power, for better or for worse. Shas built its support through its extensive network of community institutions—and then funded those institutions by gaining power in government. Indeed, to Shas’s critics (and they are many), the entire organization is basically an extortion scheme—and not surprisingly, there have been significant instances of corruption, most importantly Shas’s longtime political chief, Aryeh Deri, doing time in prison for bribery. Yet to much of Shas’s constituency, bilking a corrupt system to benefit the disenfranchised is exactly what the situation demands.
Rabbi Yosef’s religious approach was likewise innovative and infuriating. Yosef was a leader in religious outreach, and brought thousands of Sephardic Jews back into the religious fold. Moreover, he did so by accommodating Jewish law to the lived realities of these people—in stark contrast to Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox rabbis. I remember studying one of Rabbi Yosef’s tshuvot (rabbinic opinions) that held that not only may newly-religious people eat off of the non-kosher dishes of their families and in-laws, but that they must do so out of respect for their parents. Once again, this may seem trivial to an outsider, but it is almost shocking to anyone familiar with the strictures of Jewish law.
And yet, Ovadia Yosef said awful things, many times. To call him anti-gay is an understatement: he regarded gay people as animals, and attributed various natural catastrophes to pro-gay political positions. But his notion of meteorology as reflecting divine providence was not limited to matters of sexuality; he also said that Hurricane Katrina was a punishment to the United States because of America’s support for the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.
Most important, perhaps, are Rabbi Yosef’s complicated views on the Israel/Palestine conflict. One of Rabbi Yosef’s most memorable statements is that the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh (saving a life) trumps other Jewish values and allows, even mandates, negotiating with Palestinians and surrendering sovereignty over Biblical Israel. To a Westerner, this may seem banal; of course we seek peace to save lives. But for a religious figure of Rabbi Yosef’s stature and position to say such a thing is practically revolutionary, and provides the religious justification for the difficult compromises that any negotiated peace will require.
Yosef’s view has already had important political consequences. Shas provided Yitzhak Rabin’s government the votes it needed to start the Oslo process. Rabbi Yosef himself has often reached out to Arab leaders directly to advance negotiations—even as he has continued to make incendiary, racist, statements about Arabs to the press. To cynics, Shas’s willingness to join any government majority reeks of opportunism. But Yosef’s overall worldview—the Arabs are the Jews’ bitter enemies, but it is still necessary to make peace with them—has been consistent throughout, and one day will provide the Israeli majority for a two-state solution, and the religious-cultural explanation of why it is a necessity. It also reflects the ambivalent perspective of a significant plurality of Israelis, who are not in the “peace camp”—made up mostly of Ashkenazi liberals, whom Mizrachim distrust and despise—but who are not nationalist zealots (also led by Ashkenazim) either.
Already, eulogies in the Western press have called such positions “contradictions.” Yet such labels reflect our limitations, not Rabbi Yosef’s. Like his legion of followers, some of whom may enjoy a Friday night Shabbat at home before going to the soccer game in the stadium, Rabbi Yosef’s life and work does not fit conventional religious or political categories. To a progressive, he is both friend and foe; both visionary and reactionary. To millions of Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews around the world, he was a hero. But despite his many severe limitations—or, rather, exactly because of them—the pragmatic legacy he leaves behind may be the best hope for peace.