The Race for Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi: Who Will Be Anointed Ovadia Yosef’s Spiritual Heir?

The fact that it’s all in the family is not the biggest story of the upcoming election for the new Sephardi rabbi. Far more important is that the election has brought some of Israel’s major political blocs to a historic crossroads that is accelerating their internal disintegration.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

With Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar having fallen out of favor with senior Shas officials and therefore considered unlikely to get his term extended, the contest over who will inherit his mantle has been reopened. The winner remains unknown. But if it isn’t Amar, then the candidate who gets the blessing of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, will almost certainly bear a well-known surname.

Most likely, it will be one of Yosef’s three sons – the rabbis Avraham, Yitzhak and David Yosef. But if not them, the other candidates are almost equally well-connected: Rabbi Binyamin Atias, brother of Shas faction chairman Ariel Atias, and Rabbi Yehuda Deri, brother of Shas chairman Aryeh Deri. And the man who will be running against them as the religious Zionist candidate for the post is Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu – the son of former Chief Sephardi Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu. It’s a small world.

But the fact that it’s all in the family is not the biggest story of the upcoming election for the new chief rabbis. Far more important is that the election has brought some of Israel’s major political blocs to a historic crossroads that is accelerating processes of their internal disintegration.

The religious Zionist bloc's split into two opposing ideological camps by Rabbi David Stav’s candidacy to become the Ashkenazi chief rabbi was already known. But now, a real rift in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Sephardi camp has been revealed: Amar, who has long sought to serve a second term even at the expense of his statesmanlike image, has become embroiled in a bitter battle with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s family, and even with Yosef himself – the man who once saw Amar as his spiritual heir.

Over Yosef’s objections, Amar forged an alliance with the religious Zionist party Habayit Hayehudi, and is willing to support Stav – whom both the Haredim and the more conservative religious Zionists consider unacceptable – as the price of this alliance. But the independence Amar has displayed, and the vigor with which he has pursued reelection, are also troubling the Yosef family, along with senior Shas MKs like Deri and Atias, for other reasons: Can they count on him to tend to the Yosef family’s interests, both spiritual and economic? And can he keep the party going in an era when Yosef himself is old and ill?

Earlier this week, Shas withdrew its support from a bill meant to enable Amar’s reelection (under current law, a chief rabbi can only serve one term, so new legislation was needed to allow him to run again). That seemingly killed the bill’s chances, and also significantly reduced Stav’s chances of being elected: Amar wields considerable influence in the panel that elects the chief rabbis, and had agreed to support Stav in exchange for Habayit Hayehudi’s promise to support the bill enabling his reelection. Stav became even more dependent on Amar’s support after Habayit Hayehudi vetoed a bill to expand the panel that chooses the chief rabbis. And Stav is the official reason why Shas no longer supports the so-called Amar Bill, which it originally sponsored – though as noted, other interests are also involved.

Ostensibly, this past Wednesday was the last possible date for passing the Amar Bill. The government promised the High Court of Justice that it would begin naming its representatives on the panel that chooses the chief rabbis this Sunday, and the law governing the election can’t be amended once the electoral panel has already been constituted.

But in practice, the bill is alive as long as it isn’t dead. Amar’s people are now promoting the bill on their own, without Shas’ help, and they have a crucial advocate: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who would like Amar to continue serving – apparently alongside Rabbi David Lau as Ashkenazi chief rabbi.

Theoretically, Netanyahu could ask the court to give him another day or two and then rush the bill through the Knesset. But to do so, he would have to persuade the members of his coalition that this is worth their while. Thus lobbying over the election of the next chief rabbis can be expected to intensify on Sunday and Monday.

For Aryeh Deri, the Shas chairman, this election is a huge headache. Amar’s supporters include not only former Shas chairman Eli Yishai, but also several other Shas MKs. Thus the clash over the next Sephardi chief rabbi is creating a rift within the party.

Moreover, despite the loathing for Amar among much of Shas’ leadership, his reelection may be the only way to prevent a war between brothers – biological ones, that is. With Amar out of the picture, the battle to replace him would pit Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef against Rabbi Avraham Yosef and both against Rabbi David Yosef. And if either Deri or Ariel Atias suggested nominating his own brother as a way to avoid this civil war, they would be accused of nepotism.

Against this background, another term for Amar doesn’t seem so terrible. The question is whether it’s possible to turn back the clock. Netanyahu, as noted, favors Amar, but he also wants Lau as Ashkenazi chief rabbi – and it’s hard to see Habayit Hayehudi forging a new deal with either Shas or Netanyahu that would involve abandoning Stav. And Netanyahu can’t pass the Amar Bill without his coalition partners’ support.

What would happen if the Amar Bill passed without Shas’ backing? What would happen if it failed, and Amar then competed for another post, like chief rabbi of Jerusalem, without Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s backing, and perhaps in direct competition with one of Yosef’s sons (who are also eyeing that job)? Either way, it would be an interesting moment in the history of Shas – a party founded 30 years ago against the background of another election for the chief rabbis, after Yosef, then chief Sephardi rabbi, was forced to leave the post against his will.

On Wednesday, at the height of his clash with Shas, Amar traveled hundreds of kilometers to Nahariya to appear beside Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett at a ceremony inaugurating a new hesder yeshiva (which combines Torah study with army service). Bennett vowed that the status of the hesder yeshivas wouldn’t be harmed, and Amar praised the Hesder students for the religious and social “revolution” they are fomenting. Might this rapprochement between the Haredi rabbi and the religious Zionist world have a deeper meaning at a time when the doors of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s house have been slammed in his face?

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.Credit: Emil Salman
Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

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