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Middle East

Hundreds of thousands crowd Jerusalem for funeral of leading scholar Rabbi Ovadia Yosef

Yosef had suffered from a variety of medical ailments for several years

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a leading religious scholar known for landmark rulings in Jewish law and for playing a key role in the political empowerment of Sephardic Jews of Middle Eastern origins, died on Monday, aged 93.

An estimated 500,000 people thronged the streets of Jerusalem for his funeral procession, one of the largest ever held in Israel.

Yehuda Fisch, a religious seminary student among the mourners, said ‘’He advanced people from downtrodden places and lifted them up. He conveyed a lot of love.’’

Elhanan Pinhasi, 18, added: ‘’We owe him our lives. He went from family to family and brought people closer to religion.’’

But Mr Yosef was also controversial, known for his derogatory pronouncements about non-Jews, Arabs, gays and secular Jews. He even offended Holocaust survivors, saying those who perished were the reincarnated souls of sinners being punished.

Iraqi-born Mr Yosef, founder and spiritual leader of the Shas political party, a kingmaker in several Israeli coalition governments, was pronounced dead by doctors at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital. Mr Yosef had suffered a variety of maladies over the last few years and was hospitalised late last month in critical condition after kidney failure and problems with other bodily functions. It was 30 years ago that Mr Yosef formed the Shas political party which became a formidable force in part by stoking resentment of Sephardic Jews at discrimination they faced from Israel’s European Jewish elite.

Police in Jerusalem had to stop mourners reaching the vehicle bearing the body of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (EPA)

During the early 1990s Mr Yosef maintained an alliance with Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin as he pursued peace with the PLO, ruling that saving Jewish lives through peace was more important than retaining all of the West Bank. But after the second intifada in 2000, Mr Yosef stopped espousing such compromise.

Other key religious rulings by the rabbi included determining, against the opinion of other leading rabbis, that Ethiopian Jews are fully-fledged members of the Jewish faith.