Gantz and Netanyahu finally unite… to praise late Shas rabbi Yosef
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Bennett hails rabbi as unifier, urges rivals to follow suit

Gantz and Netanyahu finally unite… to praise late Shas rabbi Yosef

With MKs from left and right attending memorial event, controversial views and disagreements of past take backseat to praise for Ovadia Yosef’s Torah genius

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R), and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, at a ceremony marking six years since the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, at the Knesset, November 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R), and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, at a ceremony marking six years since the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, at the Knesset, November 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Amid ongoing deadlock in coalition negotiations, rivals Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, along with MKs from across the political spectrum, came together briefly on Monday to praise Rabbi Ovadia Yosef at a Shas party memorial event marking six years since his death.

Playing down his sometimes polarizing statements and praising his encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish law, politicians from left to right used the event to highlight the former Shas spiritual leader’s unifying presence, with some calling on Netanyahu and Gantz to honor the Yosef by putting aside differences and forming a unity government together.

“If Maran was here with us, he would address Netanyahu and Gantz and ask them to form a unity government,” Shas leader Aryeh Deri said, referring to Yosef by a name meaning “our teacher.”

“Netanyahu and Gantz are sitting here in memory of Rabbi Ovadia who was the unifier of all of us. This is the time, and I urge you to establish a unity government as quickly as possible,” said New Right No.2 Naftali Bennett.

Yosef, an outspoken rabbi who combined religious and political leadership into a role as one of the most powerful religious figures in Israel’s history, died at 93 in 2013.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (center) flanked on the left by Interior Minister Eli Yishai, and on the right by former party chairman Aryeh Deri and Minister of Housing Ariel Attias, at the Rabbi's house in Jerusalem, in October (photo credit: Shas/Flash90)
Shas founder Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (center) flanked on the left by MK Eli Yishai and on the right by MKs Aryeh Deri and Ariel Atias, at the rabbi’s house in Jerusalem, October 2012. (Shas/Flash90/File)

Often called the outstanding Sephardi rabbinical authority of the century, Yosef’s prominence helped boost the confidence of his community, which makes up roughly half of Israel’s population but was long impoverished and faced discrimination by Ashkenazi — or European — Jews who traditionally dominated Israel’s government and religious institution.

MK Naftali Bennett speaks at a ceremony marking six years since the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas party, at the Knesset on November 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Yosef parlayed his religious authority into political power, founding Shas, a party representing Sephardi Jews that became a kingmaker in several government coalitions.

Opening the speeches on Monday, Gantz praised Yosef’s “special combination of tradition and tolerance” noting his halakhic rulings on the subject recognition of Ethiopian Jews and “chained women” married to fallen soldiers in the Yom Kippur War.

In a hint at his efforts to form a unity government amid an increasingly divisive and polarized political discourse, Gantz, highlighting Yosef’s “respect of all cultures within Israeli society” said that, “if there is one way in which one can honor his memory, it is one through unity that respects one another.”

Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz speaks at a ceremony marking six years since the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, at the Knesset, November 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

President Reuven Rivlin last month tasked Gantz with attempting to form a coalition, after Netanyahu failed in the wake of the September elections. But Gantz’s chances of succeeding where the prime minister failed are seen as just as slim with a bloc of right-wing and religious parties, including Shas, vowing to support Netanyahu.

Gantz, who recently gave a speech in which he was seen as attempting to place himself as the heir to the legacy of slain peace-making prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, did not use the occasion to highlight Yosef’s support for Shas joining Rabin’s 1992 government headed by Labor and supported from the outside by the Arab parties.

Netanyahu, who came to the event halfway through — with some suggesting he was waiting, in vain, for Gantz to leave — also used his speech to hint at efforts to build a unity government, albeit perhaps facetiously.

“How good and pleasant it is when brothers sit together in unity,” the prime minister opened his address, quoting the verse from Numbers, before quickly adding with a smile, “at this non-political meeting.”

Blue and White have called for a unity government with Likud, but without the other ultra-Orthodox and hard-right parties. Likud has refused to negotiate outside of Netanyahu’s 55-strong bloc of supporters.

Netanyahu, like most of the speakers, used the rest of his speech to extol praises on Yosef for his Torah knowledge.

“He pored over the Talmud day and night, studying the book like no other could and writing and researching all the time. He took advantage of every moment. His rulings attest to his stature. He was attentive to the pulse of life and made fateful decisions on many issues,” Netanyahu said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony marking six years since the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, at the Knesset, November 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Unsurprisingly, the speakers at Monday’s event stayed away from Yosef’s political legacy and sometimes controversial public statements..

He made his biggest political-religious waves by ruling that Israel may give back parts of the West Bank in exchange for peace, invoking the Jewish precept that preserving life is the highest imperative.  “The sanctity of life overrules the slogan of not giving up an inch,” he famously said.

In the later years of his life, he also made headlines for outspoken criticism of various political parties and politicians. In one instance, he called the Jewish Home party (then-headed by Bennett) “the non-Jewish Home.”

Bennett did not mention that particular fact in his own speech.

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