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Ovadia's Choice

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Rabbi Ovadia was a towering figure in Israeli politics. Almost half of all Jewish Israeli citizens are of oriental origin. Until his appearance, this was an underprivileged class, remote from the centers of power, often humiliated, quite disunited. All attempts to turn them into a political force failed miserably.

And then the rabbi came. He founded a powerful party that often served as the arbiter of Israeli politics. He gave the Orientals back their lost dignity. He united them. It was a huge achievement.

But for what? I had hoped that once the Oriental Jews regained their self-respect, they would remember their past, the Golden Age of Jewish-Muslim cooperation in medieval Spain, when Jewish poetry flourished in the Arabic language, when the great religious thinker Moses Maimonides was the personal physician of Saladin, the Muslim leader who vanquished the Crusaders.

In this hope I chose Yosef's protege and political standard-bearer, Aryeh Deri, as Man of the Year for my news magazine at the tender age of 29. Like his master, Deri, born in Morocco, was a man of peace and openly advocated a settlement with the Palestinians.

But the dream evaporated. The Shas party became more and more right-wing and supported extreme anti-Arab policies. The Rabbi, a great expert in Arabic and Hebrew curses, cursed the Arabs as much as he did his Jewish opponents. (Once he announced that on the day of Shulamit Aloni's death there would be a feast. Aloni, a leftist leader, did not feast on the day of Yosef's death.)

There are many reasons -- psychological and sociological -- for the Oriental community becoming anti-Arab and anti-peace. It's not only Yosef's and Deri's fault. But they did not do anything to counteract it. On the contrary, they ran with the crowd, accelerating the process.

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Rabbi Ovadia ruled the Shas party like a pope, anointing and deposing its leaders at will. The party has no democratic institutions, no internal elections. The Rabbi made all decisions himself. By joining the anti-Arab chorus, he committed a grave sin -- though he never repealed his judgment allowing the giving up of occupied territories to save lives.

BEING THE party of the downtrodden, it could have been expected that Shas would at least be the leader of social protest.

And indeed, Rabbi Ovadia and his underlings talked endlessly about the plight of the Oriental masses, the poor and disabled. But in real life, they did absolutely nothing to alleviate that plight by government policy, social reform, strengthening the welfare state and such. Indeed, their opponents accused them of intentionally keeping their electorate in ignorance and poverty, so as to keep them in a state of dependency.

As a matter of fact, Ovadia and his party used their considerable political power of extortion to extract from the government immense amounts of money for their independent educational system, and for nothing else. This system extends from kindergarten to higher yeshivot. In them nothing is taught but holy texts, rather like Muslim madrassas. Their graduates are unfit to join the labor force. Of course they do not serve in the army.

The day after the funeral, when Binyamin Netanyahu made his condolence visit to the family, the sons did not talk with him about peace or social reform. They talked only of the evil design to make their youngsters serve in the army.

Malicious tongues speak about the Yosef family's control of a huge private economic empire, based on the kosher-certification industry. Admirers of Rabbi Ovadia insisted on having their food certified as strictly kosher by persons trusted by him -- for a price, of course. No one knows how much capital has been amassed by this Yosef family empire.

FOR NON-ORTHODOX Jewish Israelis, who are still the majority, Rabbi Ovadia was an eccentric, rather endearing, personality.

Television loved his way of affectionately slapping the faces of all his visitors, high or low. His curses have become part of folklore. (Once he called Netanyahu a "blind goat.")

His dress made him distinctive. Even after he was dismissed from the post of Sephardic Chief Rabbi, he insisted to the end on wearing the gold-braided Turkish uniform of that office.

Like most leaders of this type, he leaves no successor. There is no second Rabbi Ovadia, and there will not be for a long time. To build authority on personal leadership, charisma and erudition takes decades. No candidate is in sight. Even the survival of the Shas party under Deri is not assured.

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Gush

Uri Avnery is a longtime Israeli peace activist. Since 1948 has advocated the setting up of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. In 1974, Uri Avnery was the first Israeli to establish contact with PLO leadership. In 1982 he was the first Israeli ever to meet Yassir Arafat, after crossing the lines in besieged Beirut. He served three terms in the Israeli (more...)
 

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