Ovadia Yosef, the Shas spiritual mentor and former Sephardichief rabbi of Israel, is a gold medalist among insulters. The mediahere monitor his Saturday night sermons, broadcast live on Shas's pirateradio station, for his latest news-making tirades.
Last week the 80-year-old rabbi broke all records by lacerating bothHolocaust survivors and the entire Arab world. His apologists lamelyaccused the press of distorting his theological message, but Israelradio and television played the excerpts over and over to make sure noone got them wrong.
The sermon drove a last nail into the coffin of Prime Minister EhudBarak's already slim chances of rebuilding a coalition with Shas and theleft-liberal Meretz, even if it did not shame him into abandoningefforts to ally the Sephardi party with his own One Israel.
The Holocaust has long posed a dilemma for believing Jews, especiallythe Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox: If God is all-knowing and all-powerful,why were the Nazis allowed to slaughter six million of God's chosenpeople in the gas chambers and killing fields of Europe?
Yosef, who has a reputation as a giant among Talmudic scholars, came upwith an ingenious, kabbalistic explanation that drew condemnation acrossthe political and religious spectrum.
"The 6 million Jews," he told his Jerusalem disciples, "all those poorpeople who were lost at the hands of those evil ones, the Nazis, maytheir names be blotted out -- was it all for nothing? No. This was allthe reincarnation of earlier souls, who sinned and caused others to sinand did all sorts of forbidden acts.
"They returned in reincarnation in order to set things right, andreceived, those poor people, all those torments and troubles and deathsunder which they were killed in the Holocaust," Yosef continued. "Theywere all reincarnated souls. This is not the first time in their livesthat their souls have appeared. They came to do atonement for theirsins."
In the same sermon, Yosef, once known as a political dove,denounced Barak for "running after" the Palestinians. "Why are youbringing them close to us?" he asked. "You bring snakes next to us. Howcan you make peace with a snake?" Dismissing the Arabs as "Ishmaelites,"he added for bad measure: "They are all accursed, wicked ones. They areall haters of Israel. It says in the Gemara that the Holy One, Blessedbe He, is sorry he created these Ishmaelites."
Israeli outrage focused initially on the suggestion that the six millionsomehow deserved what they got. Tommy Lapid, a Hungarian-born Holocaustsurvivor and leader of the militantly secularist Shinui party, said:"When I hear Rabbi Yosef's words I feel as if my father was murdered asecond time." Nahum Langental, a National Religious Party legislator,said of the rabbi's thesis: "These are primitive ideas that arouse greathatred among people who are relatives of Holocaust victims and amongreligious people who went through the ordeal at the hands of Nazioppressors."
But as temperatures cooled, opinion woke up to the racism of his blanketdesignation of the Arabs as less than human beings. "I'm doublydistressed," said Rabbi David Rosen, director of the Anti-DefamationLeague's Israel office, " that all the focus was on a weak and spurioustheological explanation of the Holocaust and not on the outrageousracist comments about the Arabs. At least the sages of the Talmud hadthe good sense and modesty to say that not everything in this world canbe explained to our satisfaction, especially why the righteous suffer."Rosen, an Orthodox rabbi, added, "The two statements together compoundthe desecration of God's name. The first because of the way it's boundto be understood. The second, for the very statement that was made. Theylead to a distortion and perversion of Judaism's teaching that God isjust and righteous and compassionate to all, that all are created in hisimage. To stereotype a whole community as snakes, evil and violent is ahorrendous defamation in complete conflict with Jewish ethicalteaching."
Yehuda Bauer, Israel's leading Holocaust historian, accusedRabbi Yosef of blaming the Jews for murdering themselves. "The Nazis,"he said, "appear as a tool in the hands of God, sent to do their workbecause of the sins of the Jews. The fact that at least one millionJewish children under the age of bar mitzvah, so not responsible fortheir acts, were murdered is of no interest. Yosef also does not relateto the fact that, in the sea of those murdered, there was a considerablepercentage of observant Jews."
The Czech-born professor, an inveterate scourge of Holocaust denierslike David Irving, charged the rabbi with offering them moral aid andsustenance. "After all," he added, "they always said that the Jews wereto blame for their suffering, and here a brave Jew finally comes alongand this person, whose words guide the state of the Jews, tells thetruth: The Jews are to blame. If a gentile, an Englishman or a German, aRussian or an American, had said the same things, we would all berunning to the courts of the enlightened world and accusing him, rightlyso, of anti-Semitism."
Ya'akov Kirschen, the Jerusalem Post's Dry Bones cartoonist, earned thelast word. "Rabbi Ovadia Yosef says that the 6 million deserved whatthey got," said one old codger to another in his Monday strip. "So whatsin did today's Jews do to deserve Rabbi Ovadia Yosef?"