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Modern Judaism 24.2 (2004) 120-149

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Oriental Jewry Confronts Modernity:

The Case Of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef

Florida International University

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef established the political party Shas in 1984 and subsequently assumed a primary leadership role within it.1 Since then, he and his views have been, and continue to be, a regular subject of controversy in Israel that has been played out on the pages of newspapers, on television screens, and at dinner tables, with ever-increasing fervor. One can confidently assert that there has not been a single week since the founding of the Shas party in which the movement, the party, its leadership, or Rabbi Yosef himself--and often all of the above--is not discussed in the Israeli media. Yet, for such an important figure in Israeli political, religious, and social affairs, very little has been written about Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef in a scholarly context, particularly in English.2

Ovadiah Yosef was born in 1920 in Baghdad and raised in Jerusalem from the time he was four years old.3 At the youthful age of twenty he was ordained a rabbi and began his meteoric rise within the rabbinical world. From 1947 to 1950, he served as the head of the Bet Din of Cairo, where he displayed great courage in standing up to Egyptian authorities, by refusing to issue proclamations against the State of Israel, by forbidding Egyptian Jews from providing financial support to the Egyptian army, and by insisting on his right to preach in Hebrew. Upon his return to Israel, he steadily advanced through the rabbinical ranks until, in October 1972, he was elected Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel (known as Rishon Le-Zion), a position he held until the termination of his tenure of office in 1983.

Soon thereafter he turned his attention to transforming the Shas Party from a small, localized faction, which won three seats in the Jerusalem municipal elections of 1983, into a national political phenomenon. Under his leadership, the party won an unexpected four seats in the 1984 national elections.4 In each subsequent election Shas enhanced its power, culminating in 1999 when it won an astonishing seventeen seats out of 120 in the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament), making it the third-largest party in the Israeli political system.5 [End Page 120]

With so many seats accruing to Shas, no major party in Israel, until recently, has been able to easily form a government without it, thus effectively handing Shas a tremendous amount of political and financial power. As a result, the party arouses resentment among both religious and secular elements in Israeli society.6 In the religious world, the national Zionist camp, represented by the Mafdal (National Religious Party), begrudges Shas for supplanting it as the preeminent religious faction at coalition-making time. Simultaneously, the ultraOrthodox Ashkenazi parties, for their part, object to Shas's full participation in all strata of the Israeli government, something they themselves refuse to do in principle.7 Furthermore, they take exception to Shas's unstated but widely known goal of terminating the second-class status of Sephardim in the Ashkenazi-dominated ultra-Orthodox world.8

Among secular segments of Israeli society, many nonreligious Jews fear the ever-increasing political power that has enabled Shas to dictate the religious agenda of the state and has forced the government to pass resolutions and laws that, from the secular point of view, are perceived as a threat to democracy. In addition, political power has at times allowed Shas to "extort" large financial concessions from majority parties during coalition talks, which has regularly translated into generous financial assistance from government coffers for Shas institutions (especially its educational system), at the expense (or so it is perceived) of secular institutions and schools.

Lately, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Shas's revered spiritual leader, has added even more fuel to the fire by uttering what secular Israelis perceive as extremely offensive attacks against Israel's secular democratic leadership, against non-Jews in general, and against Arabs in particular, as well as against important elements within...


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