A week ago on Monday October 7, Ovadia Yosef, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel died. My friends in Haifa and Jerusalem told me that orthodox Israelis turned up en masse for his funeral, and by all accounts published in Israeli media, his passing was considered a great loss by a large portion of Israeli society. Photographs published in international press show Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres present by his coffin. Israeli official estimates place his funeral as the largest in Israeli history! Both CNN and BBC carried the news of his death, albeit with redaction of the real embarrassing parts.
You see, by all standards, Ovadia Yosef was racist, a bona fide bigot. Some of his racist comments about Palestinians and Arabs are the usual stuff that is well-tolerated in the Western so-called democracies. There is nothing new about that. Neither are Ovadia’s misogynistic remakes about the role of women. To their credit, most mainstream Western outlets mentioned these “controversial” remarks made by him. What was missing is the true depth of his racism and what it means about the current tolerance for racism in Israeli society considering the stature and role of Ovadia in Israeli politics.
In 2005, Ovadia called the hurricane Katrina tragedy God’s retribution for US support of Gaza disengagement and lack of Torah study by African-American’s living in New Orleans. To be exact he used the Hebrew derogatory term “Kushim” to refer to African-Americans. In referring to the expulsion of 17 settlement blocs in Southern Gaza known as Gush Katif, he stated that “We had 15,000 people expelled here and there 150,000. It was God’s retribution…God does not short-change anyone.” This means that according to Ovadia, not only was Katrina punishment from God, but in God’s almighty justice, 10 Kushim must pay for 1 Jewish settler.
In October 2010, in his biweekly sermon, Ovadia stated that “Goyim [non-Jews] were born only to serve us [Jews]. Without that, they have no place in the world, only to serve the People of Israel.” He went on to pontificate that:
In Israel, death has no dominion over [non-Jews]…With gentiles, it will be like any person – they need to die, but [God] will give them longevity. Why? Imagine that one’s donkey would die; they’d lose their money. This is his servant…That’s why he [non-Jew] gets a long life, to work well for this Jew…Why are gentiles needed? They will work, they will plow, they will reap. We will sit like an effendi [master] and eat…That is why gentiles were created.
No wonder Bibi and Shimon were there at this bigot’s funeral. They certainly don’t think much differently about the US congress than Ovadia, and on occasion they have stated it publicly.
Some media outlets have labeled Ovadia Yosef as the Ayatollah of Israel, because of his crazy rhetoric. To be fair, as much as the Ayatollahs of Iran perpetuate and support Islamic fascism upon Iranians, and as many crazy statements that they have made, none are as racist as Ovadia. However, the comparison is valid on a political level when one considers the role that this bigot played in Israeli politics. In addition to being recognized as a leading Talmudic scholar and authority on Jewish religious law, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was the founder and spiritual leader of Shas party, the largest religious party in Israel. Since its foundation, Shas has been part of almost every governing coalition, and as such, the Shas party is often referred to as the “kingmaker” of Israeli politics. The influence of Shas party is felt in both Israeli government and military. As such, Ovadia Yosef did play the role of an Ayatollah in Israel, except with a bit more military hardware available at his fingertips.
No doubt that there are plenty of Israeli apologists that will bend over backwards to justify, downplay, and excuse Ovadia Yosef’s role and comments. The Israeli PR machine is strong. However, the picture of leading Israeli politicians walking beside his coffin speaks a thousand words. Even more importantly, the well-established role that he played in Israeli politics speaks volumes about the mentality of the Israeli society. After all, the people of Iran are forced with bullets and batons to put up with religious fanatics and extremists. What does it say when the self-declared “only democracy in the Middle East” accepts a bigot into its political process democratically and gives his party prominence in the government? And if you think Ovadia Yosef is a rare case, you are dead wrong. In fact, the racist extreme views of Ovadia are the norm amongst majority of Israeli politicians and religious authorities.
One last nugget of wisdom from this well-loved bigot is his comments about the Holocaust victims atoning for sins committed against Ovadia’s God, whoever or whatever that might be. In August 2000, he stated that “The six million Holocaust victims were reincarnations of the souls of sinners, people who transgressed and did all sort of things which should not be done. They had been reincarnated in order to atone [by being murdered].” It is shocking that this sort of bigotry that is offensive to Jews and non-Jews alike is tolerated in Israeli politics. It is cowardly that mainstream news outlets redacted Ovadia’s worst comments.