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Raw emotions in Israel after the death of a divisive rabbi

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

The surreal sight of a funeral taking place in the middle of the night is not uncommon in Jerusalem. The Jewish tradition requires that the deceased be buried immediately after passing to prevent the soul from experiencing turmoil. The emotional scenes at the late night funeral procession of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who died this month, appeared even more surreal.

Around eight hundred thousand mourners from a cross-section of Israeli society seemed themselves to be in a state of turmoil. Many of them looked distressed, weeping uncontrollably muttering to themselves, mourning the loss of their religious and spiritual leader. However, the late rabbi was not only a prominent religious leader, but also a very astute political operator. Therefore, he left his supporters and the Shas party, the party he founded more than thirty years ago and of which he was spiritual leader until his death, in a state of disarray. Rabbi Ovadia was a man full of contradictions. While for his disciples he was a man of great wisdom and compassion, for many others he was a divisive figure who was merciless and venomous to his political and religious rivals. In the political arena he would be remembered by many as someone who opportunistically exploited social divisions within Israeli society to gain political power, which he utilized to establish alternative educational and other welfare institutions in competition to the ones of the state. This helped him and his political allies to maintain their grip on some of the most vulnerable in Israeli society, and thus ensured their votes in the ballot box.

Born in in Baghdad, he immigrated to Israel with his family at a very young age. He undoubtedly developed resentment towards the Ashkenazi (Jews who came mainly from East Europe) establishment because of their discriminatory and contemptuous attitude to the Spharadi/Mizrachi Jews (those who came mainly from the Arab World). The early years of the state of Israel saw hundreds of thousands of Jews arriving from around the Middle East and North Africa. Despite the official ethos of the Jewish state, that it was founded for all Jewish people, they were treated as second class citizens. Many were sent to hastily built remote towns in either the Negev Desert in the south or to the Galilee in the north. Those who ended up in the more established cities, found themselves living in rundown neighborhoods.

Suffering

Moreover, they suffered from high levels of unemployment, while others were employed in mainly low paid menial jobs. Tragically for them, the move to Israel contributed to the breakup of the more traditional fabric of the Mizrachi Jewish family structure, and the loss of authority by parents who saw their children rebel against their own traditions and customs. Many of these migrants who were economically successful and socially respected in their countries of origin, saw their world unravel when they arrived to Israel with little prospect of a better future for themselves or their children. They encountered ignorance about their traditions and history, combined with arrogance and racism. Inevitably this resulted in underachievement in economic, education and societal spheres, which the state failed completely to address. The scorn and neglect they suffered at the hands of the Ashkenazi establishment was very much associated with the Labour party which dominated Israeli political system until 1977.

Rabbi Ovadia was a person who thrived on ideological and personal discords

Yossi Mekelberg

The accumulated resentment among these communities was rarely translated into protestation, let alone social organization. With the exception of the riots in Wadi Salib in 1959 and the demonstrations of the Black Panthers in the 1970s, the bitterness and malaise were hardly converted into political power. It was actually the Likud party, led by Menachem Begin, a Russian by birth, who understood the electoral potential in reaching out to the Mizrachi Israelis, which helped him to with the 1977 elections. However, the emergence of the Shas party five years later introduced, for the first time, a party in which all of its representatives were ultraorthodox Mizrachis. The irony was that it fashioned itself after the Ashkenazi ultraorthodox party Agudat Israel model. For instance, in both parties the religious leaders, the council of sages, do not seek to be elected to parliament though they have the ultimate authority within the party, although it is the politicians, chosen by the Rabbis, who serve in the Knesset or government.

Despite the party’s ultraorthodox agenda, the Shas party had a wider appeal beyond the ultraorthodox community. It appealed to the sensitivities among many Mizrachi Jews, regardless of how religious they were. They perceived the party as a protest movement against the Ashkenazi establishment that represented their interests, while at the same time restoring their dignity and the connection between them and their Jewish tradition. Rabbi Ovadia and his political lieutenants translated instantly this gap in Israeli politics into seats in the Knesset and powerful governmental ministries. At its peak, the party occupied 17 seats in the Israeli parliament and influential ministries such as the Interior and Housing Ministries which have big budgets. However, instead of using their power to prompt the social mobility of their supporters in Israeli society by providing them with the necessary tools to prosper in a modern society, they created a system of patronage and dependency. This was, and still is, the Shas party’s approach to ensuring their voters’ loyalty. Through its independent education and welfare system, the party has perpetuated generations of voters dependency on them for welfare and employment. Access to the public purse had a corrupting effect on a substantial number of its leaders, several of which were convicted and spent time in jail.

The debate on occupied territories

Rabbi Ovadia also made a surprising major contribution to the public debate on withdrawal from occupied territories, ruling that there was no theological objection to the returning of occupied territories as part of a peace agreement. He argued that Judaism sanctifies life, and if withdrawal from the territories would save lives, that is what should be done. On this issue he went against the opinion of most of his supporters, and whoever replaces him will find it difficult to continue this line. Nevertheless, one should not confuse this ruling as him being a friend of the left in Israel. He saved some of his most vitriolic attacks for the left in Israel and its leaders, inciting against them and wishing them ill.

The usually liberal Supreme Court in Israel was also on the receiving end of his venomous language whenever he thought their decisions were not in line with the Jewish faith.

The demise of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef happened at a time when his movement is not part of the coalition, a position which it needs desperately in order to gain access to public funds as these are the party’s lifeline. The fragmented and divided Israeli society is in desperate need of leaders who can reconcile deep rifts in the society. Rabbi Ovadia was exactly the opposite; a person who thrived on ideological and personal discords and exploited them to increase his power and influence. His followers are left with the dilemma of whether to follow this damaging example or be liberated by his disappearance from public life.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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