850,000 people, more than 10% of Israel’s population and almost 15% of Jews in Israel, attended the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yossef on Monday night (October 7th), making it the largest funeral in Israel’s history. Rabbi Ovadia will be remembered in the Jewish religious world for his immense contribution to Jewish-religious law. He will be remembered by others for his sharp tongue and often outrageous comments about his opponents.
As a political scientist, I’d like to write about a third facet of Rabbi Ovadia- as an Israeli kingmaker.
In 1982, after serving as Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Ovadia Yossef founded a political party- Shas. Shas championed Sephardic Jews’ rights and made it their business to stand up for the downtrodden in Israeli society.
However, Shas was never a democratic party in any way. According to the party’s charter, the party’s members of Knesset are handpicked by the Shas Council of Torah Sages, a committee of four Rabbis, handpicked and chaired by Rabbi Ovadia Yossef himself. So in effect, until his death, Rabbi Ovadia directly controlled 11 members of Knesset.
Shas’s main agenda has always been the affairs of the Sephardic and the Sephardic Ultra-Orthodox community. They have never set a clear path in regards to Israel’s foreign and defense policies, allowing them to join left-wing and right-wing governments alike, depending on the highest bidder. This constant zigzagging has given them an image of extortionists, who care only about how much money the government allocates to their community and its institutions.
Shas has been a part of almost every government since 1984, acting as the tie-breaker between the Right bloc and the Left bloc. They have soared to 17 Knesset seats during the 15th Knesset (1999-2003). The party’s members have held ministerial positions, most notably, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which has been under Shas’s control for 15 of the past 30 years and the Ministry of Religious Affairs which has been under Shas’s control for 10 of the past 17 years.
The current government is the exception. The Right and Left blocs have shrunk so much and the “Center bloc” has grown so much that Netanyahu was able, for the first time, to form a government without them, enabling an attempt to change the ground rules which dictate the relationships between the Ultra-Orthodox community and the rest of the population, specifically the law which until now exempted Ultra-Orthodox youth from military service, but forbade them from being legally employed until the age of 29 if they chose to use that exemption.
Rabbi Ovadia’s death signifies the end of an era, both for the world of Jewish-law studies but also the end of a political era. Rabbi Ovadia was the glue that held the Sephardic community together. Any politician who hoped for reelection was sure to pay a televised visit to Rabbi Ovadia in order to get his blessing. He was the kingmaker.
I read Shas’s charter for a paper I wrote for my BA. I don’t recall seeing any provisions made in the charter for the event of the passing of the one person who had any real power in the party. No one knows who will become the new chairman of the Council of Sages or even how one can attain such a position. It will be a struggle full of rivalry between people who have no hope of casting a shadow anywhere near as long as Rabbi Ovadia’s. It is entirely possible that the struggle will lead to a split within the party, similar to the split within the Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox party (Yahadut Hatorah- Judaism of the Torah) after the death of the 102 year-old Rabbi Yossef Shalom Elyashiv last year (that split was mended right before the general elections).
I’ve been meaning to write a new post on “Israeli politics and parties” to replace my two-part post written during the tenure of the previous Knesset (LINK and LINK). A lot has changed on the political map since then, such as the meteoric rise of Naftali Bennet and Yair Lapid or the disappearance of the largest party in the 18th Knesset, Kadima. A lot can still happen. Netanyahu’s party, Likud, seems to be standing before an imminent split (a matter for a separate post) and Rabbi Ovadia Yossef’s passing may signal yet another political earthquake.
For a nicely written article from the Times of Israel about Rabbi Ovadia Yossef and his life, see this LINK.
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