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The BBC's Jeremy Cook reports
"The comments will further divide the already fractured Israeli society"
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Tuesday, 8 August, 2000, 09:58 GMT 10:58 UK
Profile: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef
Eyes down: The rabbi is renowned for his rose-tinted specs
By Middle East Correspondent Paul Adams

Ovadia Yosef is no stranger to controversy, but rarely has the 80-year old rabbi offended so many people at the same time.

As mentor to the (Shas) party's political leadership, Rabbi Yosef acquired enormous power

As a man of vast spiritual and political influence, he's well-placed to do it.

With his rose-tinted spectacles (he has eye problems) and magnificent gold-embroidered robes, the Baghdad-born rabbi cuts a distinctive figure.

As founder and spiritual leader of the political party, Shas, Rabbi Yosef is held in almost saintly regard by hundreds of thousands of Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin.

Power-broker: Rabbi Yosef, with newly-elected Israeli President Moshe Katsav
Many of these "Sephardim", are poor and working class. Their sense of resentment goes back to the early years of the state, when, as immigrants from Arab countries, they were told what to do and where to go by the country's almost entirely Ashkenazi, or European, elite.

The Sephardi-Ashkenazi divide, one of the most bitter rifts in Israeli society, makes Rabbi Yosef's remarks about the Holocaust particularly pointed, and inflammatory.

The vast majority of Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis were Ashkenazi. Most Sephardi Jews knew little or nothing about the Holocaust until they arrived in Israel.

The success of Shas is the most dramatic political phenomenon of the last 20 years.

Power undiminished

Suddenly, Sephardi politicians found themselves catapulted into positions of influence, with Shas eventually holding the balance of power in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.

Of the Knesset's 120 members, 17 are from Shas, making it the third largest party.

As mentor to the party's political leadership, Rabbi Yosef acquired enormous power.

At Shas election rallies in 1992, he attracted more attention than the two main party leaders, Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir.

Eighteen years on, his power is undiminished. In July, fearful that the prime minister, Ehud Barak, was planning to make too many concessions to the Palestinians, the rabbi instructed Shas to pull out of Mr Barak's coalition government.

But his views on the peace process sometimes appear contradictory.

In 1972, he ruled that it was permissible for Israel to give up territory in order to prevent the shedding of Jewish blood.

The rabbi's authority rivals - and in some cases, exceeds - that of the country's two chief rabbis. His weekly sermons are listened to by followers all over Israel and are even broadcast abroad.

His forays into the cut-throat world of Israeli politics are often accompanied by colourful language.

In March, during a long-running dispute between Shas and the leftist education minister, Yossi Sarid, over the subject of the party's financially-troubled network of religious schools, Rabbi Yosef called Mr Sarid "Satan" and said he should be "extirpated from the earth".

Rabbi Yosef meets Tony Blair last year
Comparing Mr Sarid with the biblical enemy of the Jews, Haman, Yosef said that just as vengeance had been done to Haman, "so vengeance will be done to Sarid".

His remarks prompted the country's attorney general to order a police investigation.

In the past, he has called for his enemies' tongues "to dry up in the mouths and eyes to shrivel in their sockets".

He once dismissed Ariel Sharon, the leader of the right-wing Likud party, as "a warmonger who loves pigs" and called the former prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, a "blind goat". He has recommended 40 lashes for smokers.

His rulings on wigs for women (no - they look too natural) and reading a newspaper in the bathroom (not if it's written in Hebrew, the language of the bible) cause degrees of amusement and incredulity among Israel's secular majority.

The same people fume at the influence of a noted Talmudic scholar with mystical leanings into the hurly burly of politics.

Phenomenal memory

They also resent the fact that successive governments have succumbed to what critics describe as Shas blackmail, as the party attempts to secure funding for its schools and licenses for its radio stations in return for questionable political loyalty.

Ovadia Yosef was just four years old when he first arrived in Jerusalem.

A rabbi by the age of 20, he was deputy chief rabbi of Cairo when the state of Israel was born in 1948. He returned in 1950, serving as Sephardi chief rabbi from 1973-83.

His religious credentials are impeccable. His knowledge of Jewish law is unrivalled and he's credited with a phenomenal memory.

But his learning is almost certainly beyond many of his supporters, let alone secular Israelis.

His Hebrew remains so heavily accented that Israeli TV stations felt compelled to subtitle his controversial remarks when they were broadcast at the weekend.

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See also:

07 Aug 00 | Middle East
Rabbi tones down Holocaust slur
04 Aug 00 | Middle East
Barak's breathing space
07 Aug 00 | Media reports
Israeli press condemns 'cursing Rabbi'
22 Jun 00 | Middle East
Shas: Breaking the Israeli mould
27 Mar 00 | Middle East
Israeli police probe religious leader
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