Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s passing last Monday caused a dramatic outpouring of public grief in Israel. With a deep sense of irony, it reminded me of another Israeli mass mourning, that of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which took place 18 years ago. There is a world of difference between the assassination of a serving Prime Minister in midlife and the death of a 93-year old rabbi. Yet the similarity of the numbers of people in the streets, and the differences between these two strong and controversial Israeli leaders is striking.

Hundreds of thousands of mourners – 800,000 according to media sources – crowded Jerusalem’s northern neighborhoods around Sanhedria on October 7, for the funeral for the former Chief Sephardic Rabbi and head of the Shas political movement. But beyond the need to plan ahead for traffic jams, many secular Israelis remained largely unconnected to this massive outpouring of grief and solidarity. Rabbi Yosef had alienated many of them by his Torah rulings, perceived as narrow-minded and bigoted, negating non-Orthodox forms of contemporary Jewry and insulting to those who were not among his followers. His ruling in March 2010, that Jews who donate their bodies to scientific research after death should not be mourned is but one example. He was openly opposed to gays, and belittled non-Jews. Although his stature as a Torah scholar of great learning was generally recognized, outside of his own camp he was also, perhaps overwhelmingly, perceived as a cunning actor on the national stage who used his religious following for political ends.
And yet the passing of Rabbi Yosef clearly held profound significance and meaning for hundreds of thousands of my countrymen.
Yitzhak Rabin’s passing obviously took place in completely different circumstances from that of Ovadia Yosef. Following his assassination on motsei Shabbat (I will always remember that November 4), a million Israelis paid Rabin last respects as they walked past his casket in the Knesset courtyard, and hundreds of thousands gathered at the now-renamed Kikar Rabin in Tel Aviv. Yet many parts of Israel’s population chose not to mourn Rabin because of his controversial – and to some, heinous – progress on a peace treaty with the Palestinians. My husband Lior and I shared an experience that shocked us both that solemn and sad day, when construction workers in our apartment building continued hammering and drilling on the bottom floor as we were leaving for the Knesset courtyard. On our way out, we asked them to honor Rabin’s memory by refraining from work, or at least by keeping the noise level down. The workers (Jewish citizens of Israel), far from honoring Rabin, responded with curses on his memory.   
The two groups of Israeli mourners who poured into public places to share grief and show respect, are by no means mutually exclusive. There are Shas supporters who mourned Rabin, and there are secular Israelis who mourn the loss of Ovadia Yosef as a giant of his generation.

Yet these massive and dramatic public expressions of mourning each hold a kernel of truth about the way that different groups within Israeli society self-identify and choose their public leaders. The divisions and the divisiveness in today’s Israel make unity behind a single, common vision – and single national leader – deeply challenging, and perhaps impossible, in this period of Israel’s history.

Deb Housen-Couriel has served as the Director of The Wexner Israel Fellowship Program since 2006. She’s also a Wexner Israel Fellowship alumna herself (Class 12). You can find Deb’s complete bio on our staff page (under Israel). Deb can be reached at dhousen-couriel@wexner.net.

The views expressed above are Deb’s personal views.