JERUSALEM (AP) - Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the religious scholar and spiritual leader of Israel's Sephardic Jews who transformed his downtrodden community of immigrants from North Africa and Arab nations and their descendants into a powerful force in Israeli politics, died on Monday. He was 93.
Yosef, who had suffered from a variety of medical ailments for several years, was hospitalized in recent days in critical condition after suffering kidney failure and problems with other bodily systems. Officials at the Jerusalem hospital that treated him announced his death.
Yosef was often called the outstanding Sephardic rabbinical authority of the century. His prominence helped boost the confidence of his community, which makes up roughly half of Israel's population but was long impoverished and faced discrimination by Ashkenazi - or European - Jews who traditionally dominated Israel's government and religious institution.
Yosef parlayed his religious authority into political power, founding Shas, a party representing Sephardic Jews that became a kingmaker in several government coalitions.
As hospital officials announced his death, anguished cries could be heard from a large crowd of supporters that had gathered.
Eli Yishai, a Shas leader, stepped outside the hospital, recited a Jewish blessing and then broke down into tears.
"How will we remain alone. Who will lead us," said Arieh Deri, another Shas leader, as he sobbed uncontrollably.
Crowds of anguished followers recited the kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead. Israeli TV stations said Israel's main highways were already jammed up as tens of thousands of people prepared to head to Jerusalem for Yosef's funeral later in the day.
The Iraqi-born Yosef came to national prominence when he served as Israel's chief Sephardic rabbi from 1972 to 1983. While he was revered by his followers, his critics charged that he exacerbated ethnic tensions between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Israelis.
His ornate outfit, with a gold-trimmed black cape and upswept hat, combined with his ever-present dark glasses and habitually slurred speech, made him an easy target for caricaturists. He would greet visitors, whether it be followers or prime ministers, with a playful slap to the face.
But he was the charismatic face of his Shas party, with his image plastered on posters, buses and sides of buildings during political campaigns.
Shas first ran in an election in 1984, winning four seats in the 120-seat parliament.
It subsequently grew to 17 places, the third-largest party after the mainstream Labor and Likud. However, it was hit by scandals and the imprisonment of its leader, Deri, on corruption charges. Shas currently has 11 seats, making it a midsize faction, and sits in the opposition.
Yosef's influence reached beyond the party, and he was known for his fierce statements that offended widely disparate segments of society, including Holocaust survivors, gays, Palestinians and secular Jews.
He made his biggest political-religious waves by ruling that Israel may give back parts of the West Bank in exchange for peace, invoking the Jewish concept that preserving life is the highest commandment. In an attack on the 1990-1992 government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the rabbi asked: "What have you (Shamir) done to prevent bloodshed?"
"The sanctity of life overrules the slogan of not giving up an inch," he added.
The ruling countered decrees by other rabbis, who declared that no Jew had a right to hand over any part of the biblical Land of Israel to a non-Jew for any reason.
But in recent years he appeared to retreat, emphasizing the religious and security aspects of the West Bank for Israel and backing Jewish settlement there.
The rabbi said during a sermon in August 2010 that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas should "perish from the world" and described Palestinians as "evil, bitter enemies of Israel." He later apologized.
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)