JERUSALEM, Aug. 14 (AP)--Israel's founding fathers didn't lift a finger tohelp religious Jews in Eastern Europe escape the Holocaust, a prominentultra-Orthodox politician said Monday, triggering a bitter debate--thesecond in a week--about assigning blame in the Nazi genocide.

Some said the finger-pointing shows the Holocaust is increasingly being usedto settle scores in Israel's divisive political climate. Others said thecontroversy may be a result of a belated attempt by devout Jews to explainthe Holocaust.

At the center of the latest shouting match was Shlomo Ben-Izri, a legislatorof the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which draws its support from disadvantagedJews of Middle Eastern descent.

In a religious lecture, Ben-Izri said that during the Holocaust, leaders ofthe predominantly secular Zionist movement did nothing to try to smuggledeeply devout Jews out of Eastern Europe and bring them to safety inpre-state Palestine.

The Zionist movement spent its resources to meet the needs of the600,000-strong Jewish community in Palestine and on trying to save secularJews, he said.

"The Zionist leaders said they preferred a cow in Ein Harod (a communalfarm) to a religious Jew from east Germany,'' Ben-Izri said in a recordingof the lecture broadcast Monday. "The leaders of the Zionist movement had apolicy of bringing in as few ultra-Orthodox as possible.''

During World War II, Jewish immigration to Palestine was restricted byBritish authorities to 75,000 over a five-year period, starting in 1939. Theleaders of the Jewish community in Palestine distributed the immigrationpermits based on the strength of political factions, with the ultra-OrthodoxAgudat Israel party receiving 6% of coveted entry visas, Holocaustscholars said.

They scoffed at Ben-Izri's charges, saying the Zionist movement did not havethe resources to save even a small part of European Jewry--and that manyamong Israel's founding fathers lost close family members in German-occupiedEurope.

They noted that many of Europe's leading rabbis counseled their supportersnot to immigrate to Palestine, even after it became clear the Nazis weresystematically killing Jews, and thus blocked an important escape route.

At the root of the rabbis' advice was their dispute with the Zionists, whomthey branded blasphemists who presumed to usurp the Messiah's role ofre-establishing Jewish sovereignty in Israel.

Still, some rabbis managed to escape, said Holocaust researcher Dina Porath.For example, she said, the rabbi of Belz fled Budapest, Hungary, in February1944, a day after telling his worried followers they had nothing to fear,and two days before the Nazis invaded Hungary.

Ben-Izri said such cases were rare, and that most ultra-Orthodox rabbisencouraged their followers to emigrate to Palestine.

Critics said Monday's argument was only the latest case of Shas fomentingethnic divisions for political gain. The party has portrayed its formerleader, Arieh Deri, convicted of fraud and bribe-taking, as a victim of anestablishment conspiracy.

Some suggested that with elections a possibility by early next year, Shas isintentionally provoking angry debates and casting itself in the role ofmisunderstood victim bullied by the elites.

"Could it be that you have started your election campaign, and you aretrying to create a scandal every week?'' one Israel TV interviewer askedBen-Izri.

Last week, the party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, said thosekilled in the Holocaust were the reincarnated souls of sinners, triggeringan outcry. Hundred of anguished survivors called support groups forcounseling.

The Holocaust has frequently been used in political disputes in Israel.Opponents of land-for-peace deals, for example, refer to "Auschwitzborders'' Israel would have without the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Holocaust scholar Tom Segev said the Holocaust was a taboo subject for theultra-Orthodox for a long time, and that the Shas rabbis may simply havebeen searching for answers to troubling theological questions.

"The ultra-Orthodox have great difficulty explaining where God was duringthe Holocaust. One of the ways to explain it is that the Zionists wereresponsible,'' Segev said.