North Africa, West Asia

Death and remembrance

A week that begins with the death of a former Israeli Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and ends with the gathering of thousands to commemorate the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin 18 years ago.

Efraim Perlmutter
16 October 2013

This week in Israel began with the death of former Israeli Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. He was the spiritual leader of the Shas political party. Shas is an ultra-orthodox party, which makes its electoral appeal to Israeli Sepharadi and Mizrahi Jews whose roots are in the Muslim world. The other ultra-orthodox parties are Ashkenazi with historical and cultural roots in Eastern Europe. Sepharadi Jews do not have a long tradition of ultra-orthodoxy and at Rabbi Yosef's funeral the multitudes in attendance were dressed in the black coats and hats traditional with European Jewry.  When Rabbi Yosef was alive, unlike his followers, he was famous for appearing in a black and gold Mizrahi outfit with a turban and sunglasses.   

After Rabbi Yosef's death Israeli television was filled with coverage of the funeral itself, attended by a half-million or more Israelis. I followed the coverage on my car radio while traveling the 100 km round trip to my job. Most of the commentators who spoke about Rabbi Yosef, chose to deal mainly with his religious rulings, rather than his politics, though both the rulings and the politics influenced each other. Rabbi Yosef's rulings usually took the form of several pages of well-reasoned arguments based on principles and rulings of Safaradi rabbinical sages rather than Ashkenazi rabbis. Often his rulings differed from mainstream ultra-orthodox thinking. One of his most politically significant rulings took place when Menahem Begin brought the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement before the Israeli parliament. Many rabbis on the religious right argued against the treaty because it involved surrendering territory conquered in the 1967 war. Rabbi Yosef issued a ruling that allowed the political leadership to decide if such a withdrawal would save lives and if so it was religiously permitted. The ruling gave Menahem Begin enough wiggle room to get the peace treaty ratified by the Knesset despite opposition from his own right-wing political allies.

Rabbi Yosef's most significant contribution to Israeli politics was the Shas party. Since its founding in 1984, it has held between 4 and 17 seats in the Knesset. It has been coalition partners with Labor, Likud and Kadima parties and now sits in opposition to the Natanyahu led government. The Shas party ideology has a social welfare component, Mizrahi ethnic pride and like all of the other ultra-Orthodox parties would prefer the State of Israel to be a theocracy. However, unlike the others which are ideologically anti-Zionist, Shas officially joined the World Zionist Organization in 2010. Shas has established various educational institutions and has used its position in the governing coalitions to get substantial government funding for them. Shas has also pressed for compulsive Sabbath observance. This has led to the odd situation of Muslim, Christian and Druze Israeli government inspectors handing out citations to Jewish businessmen, whose establishments were open on the Sabbath. The Shas voters are about one-third ultra-orthodox and about two-thirds religious moderates. In one election Shas garnered enough support from Israeli Arabs to elect one additional representative.

At the other end of the week, on Saturday night there was a large gathering in Tel Aviv, estimated at 40,000 people, to commemorate the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin 18 years ago. Unlike in previous years, the organizations sponsoring the event came from all parts of the Israeli political spectrum. In the past such an event would have been dominated by the Israeli left and the message would have been a partisan one condemning the Israeli right. This year the messages were a combination of desire for peace with the Palestinians and the need to defend Israeli democracy from extremism of the sort that led to the murder of Rabin. When Rabin was assassinated there was an immediate massive recognition by the Israeli citizenry that something had gone very seriously wrong. Over the years Rabin's murder had become a partisan symbol used to rally the Israeli Left and thereby reducing its significance to the public at large. Perhaps the wide sponsorship of Saturday night's commemoration is an indication that with the passage of time there is a growing realization of the broader significance of that terrible event eighteen years ago.

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