More than half a million people took to Jerusalem’s streets to mourn the spiritual leader of Israel’s Sephardic Jewish community, who died in hospital Monday, police said.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, 93, who wielded enormous influence among Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern and North African ancestry but courted controversy with his outspoken views, had been in and out of hospital for months and undergone heart surgery.
The mourners, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews wearing traditional black clothing and with men separated from women, gathered outside the seminary Yosef had studied at, before going to his funeral in Jerusalem’s conservative Sanhedria district.
Police blocked off some of the Holy City’s roads and stepped up security, with thousands of additional officers deployed.
“We’ve lost a father,” Eliel Hawzi, a 26-year-old mourner in the middle of his military service, told AFP. “Rabbi Yosef is irreplaceable for the Jewish people.”
The rabbi’s death came two weeks after he had heart surgery at Jerusalem’s Hadassa hospital, where he eventually passed away.
“Despite all our efforts... since his deterioration overnight and huge efforts to halt that, and after a great struggle, the rabbi died just a few moments ago,” cardiologist Dan Gilon said in remarks aired on radio.
News of his deteriorating health prompted President Shimon Peres to cut short a working meeting with his Czech counterpart Milos Zeman and rush to the rabbi’s bedside, his office said.
Peres later delivered a eulogy for Yosef, whom he described as “my teacher, my rabbi, my friend.”
“I held his hand which was still warm and kissed his forehead. When I pressed his hand I felt I was touching history and when I kissed his head it was as though I kissed the very greatness of Israel,” the 90-year-old head of state said of his earlier meeting with the rabbi.
Yosef, a former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel whose son took over the same role in June, had frequently played the role of kingmaker in the country’s fickle coalition politics.
He was spiritual leader also of ultra-Orthodox party Shas, which was a member of most ruling coalitions before going into opposition after January elections.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed deep sorrow over Yosef’s death, saying the Jewish people had lost “one of the wisest men of this generation.”
“I heard with profound grief about the passing of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, one of the greatest rabbis of our generation,” he said.
“He was filled with love of the Torah and the people. I very much appreciated his convivial personality and his directness,” Netanyahu said, extending condolences to his family and followers.
His death sparked an outpouring of emotion within the Sephardi community, with Shas leader Arye Deri openly sobbing as he expressed his grief in radio interviews.
“We are all alone,” he said, referring to the rabbi as “our father.”
Yosef founded Shas in 1984 on the platform of a return to religion and as a counter to an establishment dominated by Ashkenazi Jews of European ancestry.
But the Baghdad-born rabbi frequently courted controversy with his outspoken remarks, describing Palestinians and other Arabs as “snakes” and “vipers” who were “swarming like ants.”
He called on God to strike down then prime minister Ariel Sharon over Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, and during the 2006 war in Lebanon, he implied Israeli soldiers killed in battle died because they didn’t follow Jewish commandments.
Despite the rabbi’s often sharp-tongued outbursts, he had for many years been an advocate of peace talks with the Palestinians based on his respect for the sanctity of life, explained Jerusalem Post religious affairs correspondent Jeremy Sharon.
“Yosef was of the opinion that if a peace process could be conducted with Palestinians and save lives, then territorial compromises could be considered,” he said.
Sharon added that Yosef’s death without having appointed a successor could lead to splits in Shas, which had its heyday in the late 1990s with 17 seats in parliament.
But following the failure of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords to bring about an end to the conflict with the Palestinians, Yosef shifted politically to the right.
Nonetheless, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was quick to pass on his “condolences to Ovadia Yosef’s family” on Monday.