JERUSALEM, Israel (AP) — An influential and outspoken Israeli rabbi has said Israeli soldiers died in battle because they were not ritually observant Jews, sparking outrage in Israel.
Ovadia Yosef, a highly respected religious scholar among Jews of Middle Eastern descent and the spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas political movement, made the remarks on Saturday night during his weekly televised sermon.
“Is it any wonder if, heaven forbid, soldiers are killed in a war?” he said, “when they don’t observe the Sabbath, they don’t observe the Torah, they don’t pray every day, they don’t put on phylacteries every day. Is it any wonder that they’re killed? It’s no wonder.”
His remarks were quickly denounced by bereaved parents of fallen Israeli soldiers, both observant and secular, and by lawmakers across the political spectrum.
“I think all the citizens of the country understand that these words are outrageous,” said Zevulun Orlev, a lawmaker from an Orthodox Jewish hardline National Religious Party. “Any attempt to harm the bereaved families and the soldiers of Israel is unacceptable and unforgivable.”
Ran Cohen, a lawmaker from the dovish Meretz party called Yosef’s speech “foolish words” by a “primitive man.”
Eli Yishai, a Cabinet minister and head of the Shas party, said Yosef was “misunderstood” and had no intention of offending Israeli soldiers or their families. He said the rabbi would soon issue a clarification.
Yosef, 86, is no stranger to controversy and is renowned for his tirades against Israeli politicians.
In 2000, he called the Dovish politician Yossi Sarid “Satan,” adding, “may his memory be wiped out. He must be uprooted from the seed of Israel.”
He called for then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to be struck down by illness after Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and removal of its settlers in 2005. Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke in January 2006 and has been in a coma ever since.
Yosef also called Hurricane Katrina “God’s retribution” against President Bush for supporting Israel’s withdrawal of settlers from Gaza.