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Ovadia Yosef, 93, rabbi who was Israeli kingmaker

Yosef’s party represented Sephardic Jews.

Yosef’s party represented Sephardic Jews.

JERUSALEM — 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.

Rabbi 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.

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Rabbi 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 institutions.

Rabbi Yosef parlayed his religious authority into political power, founding Shas, a party representing Sephardic Jews that became a kingmaker in several government coalitions.

For three decades, Rabbi Yosef held the final word over the party’s decisions, with its leaders seeking his guidance over matters large and small.

Without a clear successor, Shas is likely to enter a period of infighting and see its political influence diminished.

As hospital officials announced his death, anguished cries could be heard from a large crowd of supporters that had gathered.

‘‘The Jewish people have lost one of the wisest men of this generation.’’ Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

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