Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres paid their respects to the family of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef on Tuesday, in visits to the mourning tent set up by the spiritual leader’s followers and family outside his Jerusalem home. Netanyahu’s condolence call included a deeply uncomfortable confrontation, however, when the late rabbi’s sons demanded that the prime minister cancel plans to draft ultra-Orthodox males, saying their demand represented their father’s “dying wish.”
During his visit, Netanyahu called the rabbi a “great scholar” and said Yosef, who died Monday at the age of 93, ”uniquely combined Judaism and humanity” and “cared deeply for anyone in need.”
But the prime minister, who was accompanied by his wife Sarah, was criticized by Yosef’s sons for his government’s endorsement of a universal draft bill that would see thousands of previously exempted yeshiva students drafted into IDF service. Yosef had 11 children, and some of his sons served in the military.
Several of Yosef’s sons, seated on the floor as is traditional during the mourning period, argued openly with Netanyahu, who was sitting across from them. They said their father was “very hurt” that Netanyahu had not given him “an answer” on the draft plans. “I lost a son, but this hurt me more,” they quoted their late father as having said. “Over and over, in his last months,” they said, Yosef returned to the issue. It was his “dying wish” that the plans to draft yeshiva students be canceled.
“Our father was hurt, but his physical pain was less than the pain he felt over the government’s attacks on the world of Torah,” one of the sons said. ”Cancel the decree,” another added.
“We are trying to unify the people,” Netanyahu responded. “I am seeking the path to protect the Torah world.”
“Cancel the decree,” one of the rabbi’s sons repeated.
Wide public concern at the norm under which most ultra-Orthodox men avoid IDF service was a key issue in January’s elections, and legislation moving through the Knesset aims to address the inequality.
Sources close to Netanyahu said later Tuesday that the prime minister had anticipated that the issue might arise, but thought it was important to make the visit in any case.
Shas’s political leader, MK Aryeh Deri, said the confrontation was “not political.” Yosef’s sons had conveyed their father’s “last will” to the prime minister, Deri said. Yosef had spent his life building up a Sephardi yeshiva framework, and was deeply troubled that it might be destroyed, he added.
Peres, during his visit to the mourning family, praised Yosef’s massive following and said that the deceased rabbi’s greatest legacy was his love for the people of Israel.
“The most moving obituary for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was that of the people,” said Peres. “An entire nation, all classes, across political camps and from all over the country came to Jerusalem” for his funeral. ”He truly loved the people of Israel, and only wanted to unify them,” the president added.
Jerusalem slowly resumed its routine Tuesday morning, hours after large swaths of the city were shut down for the largest funeral in the country’s history. Some 850,000 people were estimated to have attended the rabbi’s burial ceremony.
Hundreds of people visited the mourning tent outside the Yosef’s house on Kablan Street in the capital’s Har Nof neighborhood, where Yosef’s family will sit for the seven-day Jewish mourning period.
Shas political leaders Aryeh Deri, Eli Yishai and Ariel Atias were among the first visitors, along with former Sephardi chief rabbi Shlomo Amar and British Ambassador Matthew Gould.
Also among the visitors was Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion, who had for several weeks attempted to receive a public endorsement from Yosef. During Lion’s visit, Yosef’s four sons claimed that the rabbi had prior to his death intended to call on his followers in Jerusalem to vote for Lion.
Yosef was the powerful former Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel and spiritual leader of the Shas party.
The mourning tent is open for general visits from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and again from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., during the traditional bereavement period.
Elsewhere, the Jerusalem municipality undertook a huge clean-up operation in the Geula and Sanhedria neighborhoods in the wake of the funeral. In addition to general clean-up, city crews gathered thousands of plastic water bottles for recycling and removed barriers and signs erected for crowd control purposes.