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

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

Yosef, a Torah scholar who often mixes religion and politics, said that President Bush perpetrated the removal of Jewish settlers and Israeli troops from the territories, which are scheduled to be handed over to the Palestinians within weeks.

"Now everyone is angry at him. This is his punishment for what he did to Gush Katif," Yosef said, referring to the evacuated enclave of Jewish settlements in Gaza, "and everyone else who did as he told them, their time will 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 remarks showed "a profound lack of empathy for the suffering of others, not to mention an extremely warped worldview. It is disturbing that a man of faith would use human suffering and loss to advance a political agenda."

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

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

"It was not President Bush but Prime Minister (Ariel) Sharon who launched and implemented" the Gaza disengagement, the organization said. While the Internet has been full of messages linking Katrina to divine retribution, Yosef's reputation as one of Judaism greatest scholars makes his 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 his statements are only going to degrade Judaism in the eyes of many."

Noting that Jewish communities around the world have rallied to help Katrina victims, and that the Israeli government has sent planeloads of humanitarian aid and medical personnel to the stricken areas, Ascherman said that "clearly the hearts of the State of Israel and the Jewish people are with the people suffering in New Orleans."

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