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The BBC's Jeremy Cook reports
"The comments will further divide the already fractured Israeli society"
 real 28k

Monday, 7 August, 2000, 11:35 GMT 12:35 UK
Rabbi tones down Holocaust slur
Holocaust picture
Nearly six million Jews died in the Holocaust
Israel's most politically powerful rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, has been trying to calm outrage over a sermon in which he said the Nazi Holocaust was God's retribution against Jewish sinners.

Rabbi Yosef, the spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said he was only trying to provide a theological explanation for the Holocaust - adding that he believed all six million Jewish victims were pure and complete saints.

The eminent scholar, with tens of thousands of followers, also angered Arabs by calling the Palestinians evil-doers and snakes.


If this was Haider, we would have shut down the Austrian embassy post-haste

Secular rights leader, Yosef "Tommy" Lapid
The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, said the comments were unworthy of a rabbi of Mr Yosef's status, while the Palestinian information minister, Yasser Abed-Rabbo said Israelis must condemn Mr Yosef as a racist.

Mr Abed-Rabbo said the rabbi's remarks disgraced every Israeli.

Israeli reaction to the statements, which described the Jews who died in the Holocaust as reincarnations of earlier souls who had sinned time and time again, was quick.

Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, the leader of a secular rights party, compared Yosef to Joerg Haider, the Austrian politician who has praised the Nazis.

Domestic repercussions

"If this was Haider, we would have shut down the Austrian embassy post-haste," Mr Lapid told Israel TV.

The BBC correspondent in Jerusalem says Rabbi Yosef appears to have embarked on an exercise of damage control.

Shas leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef
Rabbi Yosef opposes concessions to Palestinians
In remarks broadcast on Israeli television on Monday, the 79-year-old Iraqi-born rabbi said: "Who doesn't bemoan the Holocaust?... Six million Jews, among them one million children...were killed by the wicked Nazis. All were holy and pure and complete saints."

But he has made no such move to calm the outrage caused among Arabs, about whom he said God was sorry to have created.

Our correspondent says the immediate effect of the controversy may be on Israeli domestic politics.

He says if Mr Barak is to survive in power he needs to bring the influential Shas party back into his coalition, a move which will be made more difficult by the events of the past two days.

Shas rise

Shas, which has 17 members in the 120-seat parliament, quit the Mr Barak's governing coalition on the eve of the Camp David peace summit on the order of Mr Yosef.

The party is opposed to any concessions to Palestinians and has been leading a campaign against Mr Barak on the issue.

"Why do you bring them (the Palestinians) close to us?" Rabbi Yosef said in the sermon on Sunday. "You bring snakes next to us. How can you make peace with a snake?"

Shas has enjoyed a meteoric rise since its foundation in the 1980s, upsetting the Left-versus-Right nature of Israeli politics. The party has held cabinet posts in governments of both sides since 1992.

Israel is home to 230,000 people who lived in Nazi Germany or countries conquered by the Nazis.

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See also:

08 Aug 00 | Middle East
Profile: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef
04 Aug 00 | Middle East
Barak's breathing space
07 Aug 00 | Media reports
Israeli press condemns 'cursing Rabbi'
22 Jun 00 | Middle East
Shas: Breaking the Israeli mould
01 May 00 | Middle East
Barak faces coalition break-up
29 Dec 99 | Middle East
Shas signals Israeli coalition deal
27 Mar 00 | Middle East
Israeli police probe religious leader
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