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Ovadia Yosef hangs up his turban

Rav Ovadia made his career as an outsider whose deputies wielded influence at the highest levels of Israeli government

An era ended today with the death of Rav Ovadia Yosef.

Rav (Rabbi) Ovadia was born in Baghdad in 1920. At the same time, in the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire, Baghdad became the capital of the new British-sponsored State of Iraq. It is no exaggeration to say that he and the modern Middle East were born together.

When I think of Cairo in the postwar period I like to imagine the world of Claudia Roden’s cookery books, scented with spice and attar of roses. My old French teacher the Karaite scholar Mourad el-Kodsi, born a year before Rav Ovadia, kept us interested with stories of his classmate Sadat, and kept us awake with fast-moving pellets of chalk. Rav Ovadia was the other end of Egyptian Jewry, angry at that easygoing, cosmopolitan world.

Rav Ovadia wasn’t the only person who thought the Cairo of King Farouk too compromising, and that world dissolved into dust in the political quakes that shook the British and French Mediterranean in the late 40s and early 50s. Rav Ovadia, along with the rest of the Jews of Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus, were moved by those same quakes to Israel.

Ovadia Yosef, Preaching
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef delivers his weekly Torah lesson at his home in Jerusalem on January 19, 2012. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Rav Ovadia made his living as a judge, but made his career as an outsider. Like so many of his fellow Arab Jews he did not fit easily into the power structure of Israel; and he succeeded as the religious leader of the socially and economically disadvantaged.

Like a Maoist insurgent, Rav Ovadia found power first by identifying his social base and looking after their basic needs. Taking up easily the role of the haham in Arab Jewish culture, he became a political and rabbinic champion. Resisting the Polish and Lithuanian influences in the black-coated and black-hatted worlds of Israeli Orthodoxy he insisted that the Oriental and Sephardic worlds of religious law should remain independent. His embroidered coat and turban, redolent of the Ottoman Empire, proclaimed the pizzazz and separateness of his people.

The power he earned by his insurgent techniques was considerable. He was for many years the power broker who could use the electoral weight of his community to ensure that he and his chosen community leaders would exercise influence at the highest levels of Israeli government. Almost to his dying day his colourful invective angered the Others: whether they were the Ashkenazic Orthodox elite of rival political parties or secular supporters of Israel’s civil-libertarian Supreme Court.

Among Orthodox Jews he was considered liberal in that he resisted the Lithuanian pressure always to impose additional practical requirements on Jewish life. Among Sephardic Jews he was an opponent of Kabbalistic mysticism. In any other context he was stridently reactionary: his references to ‘the generation of freedom and liberty’ were not approving. In his later years his pronouncements about non-Jews and Arabs sounded like the offhand comments of an elderly relative with antique racist opinions.

Poster on a street in St Louis, USA: 'Why are gentiles needed? They will work, they will plow.  They will reap.  We will sit like an effendi and eat'. - Ovadia Yosef, Former Chief Rabbi for Israel
Ovadia Yosef’s words were not always measured or thoughtful, and often enraged the Other. Credit: Flickr, Paul Sableman CC-BY

Rav Ovadia Yosef was not afraid to make enemies, and he would not have been surprised to hear that some would dance at his departure. Like Baroness Thatcher, he inspired extremes of feeling, and like Baroness Thatcher his departure has been marked by some with rejoicing. Both these leaders spent their lives looking after the interests and empowerment of those whom they considered their own. They were well used to the idea that the rest of the world would not thank them for their efforts.

Someone dancing on a grave tells us more about the dancer than it tells us about the occupant of the grave.

Rav (Rabbi) Haim Ovadia Yosef died Monday in Jerusalem. He was 93.

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About the Author
Dr Lynette Nusbacher is a strategist and devil's advocate. She is a core partner in Nusbacher Associates, a strategy think-tank. She has been a senior national security official in the United Kingdom and was Senior Lecturer in War Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
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