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Jerusalem - The influential spiritual leader of Israel's Sephardic Jewish community and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party died on Monday at a Jerusalem hospital, his surgeon said. He was 93.
“Despite all our efforts... since his deterioration overnight and huge efforts to halt that, and after a great struggle, the rabbi died just a few moments ago,” cardiologist Dan Gilon said in remarks carried by Israel's main radio stations.
The rabbi's death came just two weeks after he underwent heart surgery at the city's Hadassa hospital in Ein Kerem, where he eventually passed away.
Despite recent reports of an improvement in his condition, his health took a major turn for the worse overnight, with Gilon earlier describing his condition as “critical”.
The news prompted Israeli President Shimon Peres to cut short a working meeting with his Czech counterpart Milos Zeman and rush to the rabbi's bedside, his office said. It was not immediately clear if he was there when he died.
Yosef, a former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel whose son took over the same role in June, had been in and out of hospital for months.
He wielded enormous influence among Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern and North African ancestry, and frequently played the role of kingmaker in the country's fickle coalition politics.
Shas was a member of most of Israel's ruling coalitions before going into opposition after general elections in January.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed deep sorrow over Yosef's death, saying the people had lost one of the “great sages” of a generation.
“I heard with great sorrow about the passing of the first rabbi of Zion, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, one of spiritual giants of our generation,” he said, sending condolences to his family and his followers.
His death sparked an outpouring of emotion within the Sephardi community, with Shas leader Arye Deri openly sobbing as he expressed his grief in several radio interviews.
“We are all alone,” he wept, referring to the rabbi as “our father”.
Yosef founded Shas in 1984 on the platform of a return to religion and as a counter to an establishment dominated by Ashkenazi Jews of European ancestry.
But the Baghdad-born rabbi frequently courted controversy with his outspoken remarks, describing Palestinians and other Arabs as “snakes” and “vipers” who were “swarming like ants”.
He called on God to strike down then prime minister Ariel Sharon over Israel's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, and during the 2006 war in Lebanon, he implied that Israeli soldiers killed in battle died because they didn't follow Jewish commandments. - Sapa-AFP