Jerusalem, Sept. 9 - Jewish groups have strongly condemned remarks by aleading Israeli rabbi who said that Hurricane Katrina was God's way ofpunishing the United States.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a former Sephardi chief rabbi and the influentialspiritual leader of the Shas political party, made the claim during hisweekly sermon on Tuesday (Sept. 6). He said that the devastation wrought byKatrina "was God's retribution" for pressuring Israel to relinquish Gaza andthe northern West Bank to the Palestinians.

Yosef, a Torah scholar who often mixes religion and politics, said thatPresident Bush perpetrated the removal of Jewish settlers and Israeli troopsfrom the territories, which are scheduled to be handed over to thePalestinians within weeks.

"Now everyone is angry at him. This is his punishment for what he did toGush Katif," Yosef said, referring to the evacuated enclave of Jewishsettlements in Gaza, "and everyone else who did as he told them, their timewill come too."

The Israel Office of the Anti-Defamation League called Yosef's remarks"outrageous in the extreme."

In a statement Thursday (Sept. 8), the ADL said that Yosef's remarksshowed "a profound lack of empathy for the suffering of others, not tomention an extremely warped worldview. It is disturbing that a man of faithwould use human suffering and loss to advance a political agenda."

The ADL said that Yosef "owes an apology to the United States and to thevictims of Hurricane Katrina. We hope that religious leaders in Israel willcondemn his words as insensitive and beyond the acceptable limit for anational dialogue."

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism said Thursday that Yosef'sassertions were "despicable" and "substantively absurd."

"It was not President Bush but Prime Minister (Ariel) Sharon wholaunched and implemented" the Gaza disengagement, the organization said. While the Internet has been full of messages linking Katrina to divineretribution, Yosef's reputation as one of Judaism greatest scholars makeshis comments particularly disturbing, according to Rabbi Arik Ascherman,

director of the Israel-based organization Rabbis for Human Rights. "People listen" to what Yosef says, Ascherman said, "and I think hisstatements are only going to degrade Judaism in the eyes of many."

Noting that Jewish communities around the world have rallied to helpKatrina victims, and that the Israeli government has sent planeloads ofhumanitarian aid and medical personnel to the stricken areas, Ascherman saidthat "clearly the hearts of the State of Israel and the Jewish people arewith the people suffering in New Orleans."