Influential Israeli rabbi Yosef dies

The influential leader of Israel’s Sephardic Jewish community, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has died aged 93.

Vigils had been held for the past month at a hospital in Jerusalem where he was being treated as his health declined. He will be buried later on Monday.

The rabbi was also the spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas political party, which he founded 30 years ago.

He founded the party in 1984 to increase representation for Jews from Middle Eastern and African backgrounds.

Until then, Israel’s government and religious institutions had tended to be dominated by Ashkenazi Jews – those of European descent.

Though it is currently in opposition, Shas became a kingmaker in several coalition governments.

Shas leader Arye Deri sobbed uncontrollably as he expressed his grief.

Shas leader Arye Deri sobbed uncontrollably after Rabbi Yosef’s death was announced

“How will we remain alone. Who will lead us,” he asked, referring to the rabbi as “our father”.

Controversial comments

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed “deep sorrow” at the news of Rabbi Yosef’s death, describing him as “among the greatest rabbis of our generation”.

“Rabbi Ovadia was a giant in Torah and Jewish law and a teacher for tens of thousands,” he said in a statement.

“The Jewish People have lost one of the wisest men of this generation.”

The Iraqi-born cleric was also known for his controversial comment about Arabs, secular Jews, liberals, women and gays.

He once likened Palestinians to snakes, and in 2010 called for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to “vanish from our world”.

However, he also encouraged Israeli politicians to engage in the peace process with the Palestinians and by abstaining, helped secure the passage of the first Oslo peace accord through the Knesset.

President Abbas, meeting visiting Israeli MPs in Ramallah on Monday, asked them to send his condolences to Rabbi Yosef’s family.

The rabbi’s son, Yitzhak Yosef, is the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel.