2016-06-30
JERUSALEM, Aug. 14 (AP)--Israel's founding fathers didn't lift a finger to help religious Jews in Eastern Europe escape the Holocaust, a prominent ultra-Orthodox politician said Monday, triggering a bitter debate--the second in a week--about assigning blame in the Nazi genocide.

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

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

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

The Zionist movement spent its resources to meet the needs of the 600,000-strong Jewish community in Palestine and on trying to save secular Jews, he said.

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

During World War II, Jewish immigration to Palestine was restricted by British authorities to 75,000 over a five-year period, starting in 1939. The leaders of the Jewish community in Palestine distributed the immigration permits based on the strength of political factions, with the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel party receiving 6% of coveted entry visas, Holocaust scholars said.

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

They noted that many of Europe's leading rabbis counseled their supporters not to immigrate to Palestine, even after it became clear the Nazis were systematically killing Jews, and thus blocked an important escape route.

At the root of the rabbis' advice was their dispute with the Zionists, whom they branded blasphemists who presumed to usurp the Messiah's role of re-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 February 1944, 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 rabbis encouraged their followers to emigrate to Palestine.

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

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

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

Last week, the party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, said those killed in the Holocaust were the reincarnated souls of sinners, triggering an outcry. Hundred of anguished survivors called support groups for counseling.

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

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

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

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