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Hurricane Katrina and Ovadia Yosef's Racism - Enough is Enough


The religious leader declared, "The hurricane is God's punishment on George Bush." The religious leader was not an Islamist extremist in this case. It was our very own "Kvod Harav" (his honor the Rabbi) Ovadia Yosef, the venerable "spiritual leader" of the Shas party.

Not confining himself to one outrageous statement, Ovadia Yosef inisted that the floods of hurricane Katrina were meant by God to punish the "Kushites." Kushite is a biblical reference to an unknown tribe. In modern Hebrew it is a derogatory term somewhat equivalent to "Nigra." According to Ovadia, the "Kushites" do not study the Torah, and therefore they are being punished.

For the information of "Kvod" Harav, the "Kushites" (assuming he means African Americans) study the Torah like no other single ethnic group in the United States. They study it when rise, and when they sleep. They sing the Torah stories in their glorious sprituals, about the battle of Jericho, and Daniel in the Fiery Furnace, and Moses leading the Hebrew children out of Egypt and slavery. Many years ago I took a course on "The Bible as Literature" in the United States. It was given by a so-called "Kushite." It was a unique experience. She taught me to love and respect the Tanach (Bible) as my heritage in a way that nine years of Hebrew day school had not succeeded in doing.

It is ironic that we Jews, of all peoples, should be spreading race hate. Howver, perhaps the supreme irony is that the person who is spreading this wicked bigotry, Ovadia Yosef, is the "spiritual leader" of the Shas party, which has hollered loud and long about "prejudice" against Sephardic Jews.

The Rabbi is not alone in his ignorance, hate mongering and lack of tact. His spokesman explained that "Kvod Harav" likes to tell jokes in his sermons. Indeed! Suppose for a moment, that the Pope, in his public appearance in St. Peters square, told some Jewish jokes to lighten things up. He could, for example, tell the one about the two Jewish partners who went on vacation together, or the one about how the Grand Canyon was formed. We can imagine the headlines in every newspaper in Israel, screaming "The Pope is an anti-Semite, the Pope is a racist, the Pope is a Nazi."

It is not the first time Ovadia Yosef has humiliated all of the house of Israel in this way.

Ovadia Yosef said that Holocaust victims were reincarnated souls of sinners. If he had only said that, it would have been more than enough. Dayenu as the Passover chant says.

He has said that Arabs are snakes. That would have been more than enough. Dayenu.

He has said that dovish politician Yossi Sarid is like the villain Haman and should be destroyed. Dayenu.

Now he said that Katrina is punishment for Bush's support for disengagement. That too would have been more than enough. Dayenu.

And then he said that God is punishing the "Kushites" because they do not study the Torah. Dayenu. Surely, it is enough!

Each such statement by Ovadia Yosef makes us burn with shame. Each statement does irreparable harm to the Jewish people and to Israel and spread hate in the world. We cannot excuse his behavior as senility. His apologists and spokespeople are not senile. They insist it is fine for a Rabbi to make racist jokes, and claim that his "interpretation" of the "Torah" that claims that the Holocaust was punishment is legitimate. We cannot claim that Ovadia Yosef represents a "fringe element." The Shas party that he leads got 17 seats out of 120 in one Knesset election, and now they hold 11 seats. Over a hundred thousand people voted for racism and ignorance.

What sin have the Israeli people, the Jewish people and those of the Jewish religion committed, that we deserve to be publicly shamed and humiliated over and over by the public statements of people like Ovadia Yosef? Time and again, Ovadia Yosef and others like him shame the Jewish people. Though he is not a Zionist, his tactless and hateful remarks are quoted everywhere to prove that "Zionism is Racism." His latest remarks will no doubt be added to the foul litany of real and fabricated "Zionist Quotes" that appear in all the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic Web sites.

Our sin is that we have been negligent in adhering to the admonishment, "And ye shall expunge the evil from amongst thyselves." In Hebrew - Uvayarta Hara mitochacha.

There is an Israeli law against public utterance of racism and incitement. For some reason, it is never applied against people like "Kvod Harav" or his political party.

Ami Isseroff

Last update - 22:07 07/09/2005

Shas rabbi: Hurricane is Bush's punishment for pullout support
By The Associated Press

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a former chief rabbi and the spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas movement, said on Wednesday that Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment for U.S. President George W. Bush's support for Israel's Gaza pullout.

"It was God's retribution. God does not shortchange anyone," Yosef said during his weekly sermon on Tuesday. His comments were broadcast on Channel 10 TV on Wednesday.

Yosef also said recent natural disasters were the result of a lack of Torah study and that Katrina's victims suffered "because they have no God," singling out black people.

"He (Bush) perpetrated the expulsion (of Jews from Gaza). Now everyone is mad at him. This is his punishment for what he did to Gush Katif, and everyone else who did as he told them, their time will come, too," Yosef said.

A Shas official, Tzvika Yaacobson, did not deny Yosef made the comments but said they were taken out of context and that people were misinterpreting the rabbi.

"He has a special style he uses when he speaks to the people," said Yaacobson. "He tells jokes that you may like, and may not like. When you just tell the joke, you are ignoring the connotation."

Yosef singled out black victims, saying "they don't study Torah." He used the word "Kushim," which in the Bible refers to an ancient African people but in vernacular Hebrew is considered derogatory.

Yosef, 85, is no stranger to controversy. Last March he declared that God will strike dead "the evil one" who evacuates Israelis from the Gaza Strip, referring to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

He has called on the Israel Defense FOrces to "joyfully" annihilate Arabs with rockets, and he caused a huge uproar when he stated that the six million Jews who perished in the Nazi Holocaust died because they were reincarnations of sinners in previous generations.

Friday August 11, 2000

Shoah victims souls of sinners, rabbi says, sparking rage
Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Local Holocaust survivors reacted with shock and outrage to the statements of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, that Jews murdered in the Holocaust were the reincarnated souls of sinners.

"If the 6 million would know that a rabbi, especially an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, or any Jew, would make such a statement, they would turn in their graves. But they don't have graves, their remains went up in smoke," said Eddy Wynschenk, a San Bruno survivor who lost his entire family in the camps.

The spiritual leader of Israel's fervently religious Shas Party is now caught in a firestorm of condemnation and ridicule.

Although Yosef attempted to soften his comments on Sunday by saying that all the Jewish victims of the Nazis "were holy and pure and complete saints," one outraged man was arrested on suspicion of threatening to murder the spiritual mentor on Monday.

The suspect had come to the vicinity of Yosef's home in Jerusalem's Har Nof neighborhood, and asked a passer-by for the exact address. He then allegedly said he intended to "put a bullet in [Yosef's] head."

Police summoned to the scene arrested the man.

During his weekly sermon on Saturday, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef also referred to the Palestinians as "snakes."

Prime Minister Ehud Barak, also targeted in Yosef's remarks, said the statements were not fitting for a rabbi of his standing.

During a weekly cabinet meeting, Barak criticized the Shas Party as well as Yosef. "From a movement whose banner is emblazoned with the demand for unity and closeness, its leaders should speak in a manner that would strengthen this claim," Barak said.

Referring to Barak's efforts to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians at the Camp David summit, Yosef said, "Where are this man's brains?" Addressing Barak, the rabbi added, "You bring snakes next to us. How can you make peace with a snake?" He also called Arabs "evildoers."

This is not the first time Yosef's comments have sparked controversy. Last Purim, Yosef likened Yossi Sarid, the leader of the secular Meretz Party, to the evil Haman in the Book of Esther, and he called on supporters to wish for Sarid's destruction.

In the latest incident, as in previous ones, Shas leaders said the rabbi's remarks were taken out of context.

"Don't take a monopoly on interpretation of the Holocaust," a Shas legislator said in an Israeli radio interview. "The rabbi's commentary was based on Judaism."

Some people -- including President Moshe Katsav and Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau -- said the concept of reincarnation is an attempt to understand why the Holocaust happened.

But Lau, himself a Holocaust survivor, said that perhaps the pain of the tragedy of the Holocaust is still too acute for comments such as Yosef's. He defended the Shas rabbi, saying Yosef has a very "emotional attitude" toward the Holocaust and that he did not say that the victims of the Holocaust were sinners.

"I did not hear the lesson, but certainly he would not accuse any of the 6 million," Lau told Israel Radio. "He tried to give further understanding to what happened there."

Katsav said he does not intend to go into the theological basis of Yosef's remarks, but condemned any statements that hurt people's feelings. "At this time, we must make every effort to reduce tension and demonstrate more unity," said Katsav, who vowed to pursue tolerance and national unity when he was sworn in last week as Israel's eighth president.

The comments were interpreted by some political observers as an indication that Shas is not inclined to rejoin Barak's government after bolting the coalition on the eve of the failed Camp David summit.

In the past, the Shas Party has supported the peace process, maintaining that giving land to the Palestinians could be justified because it would increase Israel's security and save Jewish lives.

Yosef's remarks also drew criticisms from Palestinian officials and Jewish community leaders from around the world.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian information minister, said, "The statements of this idiot and racist are a disgrace for every Israeli."

Israeli-Arab Knesset member Ahmed Tibi said his party would ask Israel's attorney general to consider pressing charges against Yosef. "It reminds me of what the Nazis said about the Jews."

Italy's best known Jewish leader blasted Yosef for saying the Holocaust was God's punishment against Jewish sinners.

"The whole argument that the evildoers were doing the right thing is ludicrous and scandalous," said Tullia Zevi, former president of Italy's Jewish communities and a leading figure in the European Jewish Congress.

Zevi, who is currently in charge of intercultural and interreligious relations for the European Jewish Congress, said Yosef's remarks "only encourage intolerance."

"The idea that the Nazis were divine instruments to punish Jews for being reincarnated sinners is intolerable for me as a woman and as a former lay leader of a Jewish community," she said.

Wynscheck pointed out that 1.5 million of the Nazi's victims were children. "What kind of sinner was my little niece?" he asked.

When the Germans rounded up Jews, he added, they did not care whether they were Orthodox or not.

"My anger and pain is not for me personally, I have to live with that regardless of this statement from the ultra-Orthodox rabbi," said Wynschenk, who has long lectured at area schools about his experiences. "My pain is for the 6 million."

William J. Lowenberg, another local survivor, called Yosef a "senile old man," whose statements are "unacceptable and destructive."

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Replies: 5 comments

If Ovadia believes that the poor of New Orleans and elsewhere are being punished for their failure to study the Torah, why hasn't he spent his life bringing the Torah to these unfortunate people? Why has he wasted his G-d given existance to the aggrandisement of no one but himself?
It is my understanding that the Holocaust tore the heart out of the very communities in Europe that had spent their sorry existances studying the Torah and committing themselves to holy lives. Or does Ovadia believe that the Hassidim who perished in the fires, pits and gas chambers were G-dless beings? Does Ovadia consider the Hassidim as fundamental sinners deserving of death? Perhaps he would like the IDF to stalk Meir Shearim and Bnei Brak, and shoot them on sight - as an act of G-d?
I would also like to point out that in the past it has been the very poor Black communities that have studied the Bible, identified with the nation of Israel and cleaved to spirituality (Devekut) and their reward - Nothing, but grinding poverty and marginalisation. There are also many amongst the black communities that will be descendants of African Jews sold into slavery and shipped to America - are these people not the distant relatives of Ovadias supporters?
If G-d intended to punish Bush for his support for the withdrawls from Gaza, then G-d would have introduced a virus which targetted the obese and wiped out the white and wealthy Texan power-based that Bush calls his own.
Get real Ovadia and shut up!

Posted by Rod Davies @ 09/09/2005 10:41 AM CST

These ludicrous statements coming from "Rabbi" Ovadia Yosef, in his carnival uniform, is no surprise. It is amazing how he has become God's spokesman.

His lack of sensitivity for those who suffered as a result of Hurrican Katrina is another pathetic example of the garbage that he utters in his sermons to the faithful.

This rabbinical bigot is a disgrace to the Jewish People and to Israel. The less press he is given - the better! The big tragedy is that he has an enormous amount of supporters and followers in the Shas Party of which he is the spiritual head. This macabre party stands a great chance of holding the balance of power in the upcoming Israeli elections.This "self-styled spokesman of God" ought to be treated with the contempt that he deserves.

We,who live in Israel, are often subjected to his "spiritual pearls of wisdom". He curses those who do not have his world view. He is part of the "hell and brimstone" generation of bigoted clerics.

Posted by Shimon Z. Klein @ 09/09/2005 02:24 PM CST

Ami, you neglected or forgot to mention Ovadia's additional claim of some mysterious link between Bush's support for the Gaza dissengagement, the "Kushites" of New Orleans, and the tsunami that devastated communities in and around southeast asia in 2004. Also, what about the "slap on the head" (chapkha al ha-rosh) comment? It's time to stop referring to this guy as a Rabbi. He and his people refuse to recognize the rabbinical credentials of countless Reform, Conservative, and other ("non-Orthodox") rabbis who have sacrificed for, and fought, in defense of the poor, weak, hungry, and oppressed. Yet, we (and the press) continue to refer to Ovadia as "Rabbi". Every time we do so, we give legitimacy to the rabbinical stature of this good-for-nothing, self-absorbed racist delusionary, and to the monopolistic hold that he and his followers have on religious, spiritual, and much of civilian activity (such as marriage, burial) in Israel.

I agree with your assessment of the "sin" committed by the people of Israel. However, I'd add some more food for thought: the sin of continued occupation. The disengagement is a first step perhaps, but it's hardly adequate.

Posted by Eran Segev @ 09/10/2005 12:37 AM CST

Permit me to say that I find Mr. Ami Isseroff's attack against Rabbi Ovaida Yosef outrageous and shameful. In a time when some politicians are humiliating Israel to the point of deporting peaceful Israeli citizens from their houses, destroying their houses and synagogues and even transfering the corpses of their relatives elsewhere, pointing at Rabbi Ovadia Yosef as the one who "humiliates the house of Israel" is simply ridiculous.

If Rabbi Ovaida Yosef, on the base of his knowledge of Torah, believes that "Holocaust victims were reincarnated souls of sinners" he is surely entitled to voice that view.

If he says that Arabs are snakes I myself (being an Arab from my maternal side) surely disagree, but am nevertheless compelled to admit that unfortunately many Arabs today perfectly fit that description.

If he says that the pro-PLO politician Yossi Sarid is like the villain Haman, I heartily agree, and also think that many of the victimns of PLO terror also agree.

If he says that Katrina is punishment for Bush's support for disengagement I also agree. I do firmly believe that those politicians who wage war against Israel actually call for God's punishment upon their people. I think this principle is clearly explained into details in the Bible and that history has repeatedly proved its correctness. As a matter of fact, by imposing Sharon an anti-Jewish deportation plan, Bush caused thousands of innocent Jews to become homeless. After a short time, some tens of thousands of innocent Americans are facing a similar, and even worst situation. Like Rabbi Ovaida Yosef and like many other believers, I see a direct link between the two facts. Mr. Isseroff has all rights to refuse to believe in that principle, but no right to insult those who believe in it.

If, as he claims, Bush really reads the Bible every day, he should reflect upon the consequences of his infamous Middle East policy, change his mind and proclaim a national days of repentance and atonement. Abraham Lincoln did so when the Civil War started. However, Lincoln was a man of honor, with a very high moral and religious sense.

Sheikh Prof. Abdul Hadi Palazzi
Cultural Institute of the Italian Islamic Community
Muslim Co-Founder and Co-Chairman,
Islam-Israel Fellowship, Root & Branch Association, Ltd.

Posted by Sheikh Abdul Hadi Palazzi @ 09/10/2005 03:47 PM CST

Esteemed Sheikh Palazzi,
With regard to your comment at MidEastWeb Log:

Knowing your sense of fairness and humanity, I am sure you would be the first
to protest if an imam or sheikh made a racist statement, or insisted that God
punishes innocent people because of the deeds of their leaders.

Ovadia Yosef has the same right as anyone else to express his opinion, but he
has no right to make racist and inflammatory statements in the name of the
Jewish people and the Jewish religion. He dishonors the Jews in the same way
that a Muslim extremist dishonors Islam.

Surely you don't agree with him that African-Americans do not read the Bible?
There are many who read the Bible far less, but God doesn't send any
hurricanes to kill them.

As for victims of the Holocaust being reincarnated sinners, I do not believe
that statement would be acceptable in any religion. Jewish tradition, and I am
sure Muslim tradition is the same, teaches us to honor our ancestors and to
honor the dead, and most especially to honor those who gave their lives as
martyrs, because of their faith or because of their membership in our people.
Has this not been the tradition of all peoples and all religions since the
beginning of time?

Ami Isseroff, D.Sc

Posted by Ami Isseroff @ 09/14/2005 09:06 PM CST

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