Rabbi Yosef Funeral Draws Hundreds of Thousands

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JERUSALEM, Israel -- More than 10 percent of the Israeli population -- an estimated 800,000 people -- flooded the Israeli capital on Monday evening for the funeral of the influential Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

"I heard with profound grief about the passing of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, among the greatest rabbis of our generation," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

"Rabbi Ovadia was a giant in Torah and Jewish law and a teacher for tens of thousands. He worked greatly to enhance Jewish heritage and, at the same time, his rulings took into consideration the times and the realities of renewed life in the State of Israel," the prime minister said.

Yosef, who was 93, immigrated to Israel from Baghdad when he was a child. He was seen by his supporters as a revered sage. He was the spiritual leader of Israel's Sephardic Jews, those from North Africa and Arab nations. He transformed that downtrodden community into a powerful force in Israeli politics.

As the spiritual leader of the Shas political party, Yosef wielded influence over all Israelis. He was sometime given to outbursts in which he criticized secular Israelis, Palestinian Arabs and Holocaust survivors.

During a sermon in August 2010, Yosef said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas should "perish from the world" and described Palestinian Arabs as "evil, bitter enemies of Israel."

He later apologized, and Abbas expressed his condolences over Yosef's death on Monday.

"We met on several occasions," Abbas told a group of left-leaning Knesset members who visited him in Ramallah. "We had prolonged discussions. Please send our condolences to his family."

Yosef is survived by 11 children and many grandchildren. His oldest son, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, died earlier this year after a prolonged battle with cancer.

Political commentators said his death brings the end of an era in Israeli politics.

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