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Thursday, Aug. 10, 2000

It's summertime, and the news is slim


LONDON -- Those of us whose job is to feed the world a steady diet of "news" (99 percent of which is actually recycled "olds") are always grateful when a loon like Rabbi Ovadia Yosef opens his mouth and lets fly. Especially in August.

Yosef is former chief rabbi of Israel and spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, third largest in the Israeli Knesset, or Parliament. In his Saturday sermon Aug. 5, broadcast around the world by satellite, he informed us that Prime Minister Ehud Barak was crazy to try to make peace with the Arabs -- and that Hitler had only been doing God's work.

"Where are (Barak's) brains?" inquired the rabbi. "How can you make peace with a snake? The sons of Ishmael (Arabs) are all accursed haters of Israel. God regrets having created these Ishmaelites." His followers applauded, of course, and various other people went tut-tut. Routine slander, not many hurt.

What made Yosef's sermon newsworthy was not his predictable anti-Arab racism, but his remarkable remarks about the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Their deaths were a punishment for their sins, he said. And Hitler, though evil, was only God's agent.

"The victims of the Holocaust, all 6 million Jews . . . were reincarnations of earlier souls who sinned time and again and did all sorts of things that shouldn't have been done. They had been reincarnated in order to atone." Cue an August firestorm of anguished protest, a full-scale tempest in a teapot, eagerly stoked by famine-stricken media.

First to condemn Yosef was Holocaust survivor Yosef Lapid, head of the secularist Shinui Party, who called him "an old fool." Then came Ephraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Jerusalem office, asking angrily: "If those Jews deserved to die for past sins, why blame those who carried out the death sentence?"

The cascade of accusations and counter-accusations rolled across Israel and then around the world, fueled by industrious journalists calling up more and more people to keep the story going. It is August, after all.

So what can we sensibly say about the rabbi's remarks, apart from noting that racial abuse against live Arabs elicits less shock both within and outside Israel than making an obscure religious judgment about the moral standing of people now long dead?

Some observers have concentrated on the Byzantine and feral character of the Israeli political system, a pure form of proportional representation that gives minority religious parties like Shas a stranglehold on almost every decision. Yosef pulled Shas out of Barak's coalition on the eve of the Camp David talks, on the grounds that Barak might give too much away to the Arabs.

Barak's government will fall when the Knesset reconvenes in three months' time if he cannot lure Shas back into the coalition, so his office confined itself to wishing that the rabbi would not hurt the feelings of the families of Holocaust survivors. It deliberately said nothing to contradict Yosef's vicious comments about Arabs, for this is the man on whom the scant surviving prospects of a Middle Eastern peace agreement now rest.

Other analysts are taking another tack, noting that this marks a sharp escalation in the struggle of "Oriental" Jews (who come from Middle Eastern or North African countries, and whose families were untouched by the Holocaust) to dethrone and humiliate the mostly secular Ashkenazi (European Jewish) founders of the state.

Poor and often illiterate when they flooded into the country in the '50s, they were patronized and despised by the European refugees who dominated Israeli politics and business. Now it's payback time, and in a country divided about half-and-half between mostly secular Ashkenazi and mostly orthodox Orientals, the conflict has escalated into a kind of religious guerrilla war.

When the Shas leader made his comments, he was partly dealing with a controversy among the Orthodox about why God let millions of his Chosen People die in the Holocaust. But he was also saying with calculated brutality that the Ashkenazi only got what they deserved, and should stop claiming that their ordeal gives them any special claim on the sympathy and support of other Jews.

That should play well with the more fanatic end of the Orthodox community, some of whose most extreme members have now taken to vandalizing the synagogues of non-Orthodox Jewish sects in Jerusalem, and even making fire-bomb attacks on them. The old Israeli cohesion has not survived the country's transition from beleaguered outpost to regional superpower.

But these are just local issues. The real meaning of the Yosef controversy is that it's August, and there is precious little other international news around. Most movers and shakers in the northern hemisphere are away on summer holidays, and the 15 percent of the human race that lives in the southern hemisphere is just not generating enough news to hold the ads apart.

Occasionally, the late summer will produce a big, ugly surprise: World War I began in August, 1914, World War II on Sept. 3, and the Persian Gulf War in August, 1990. But even big-time bad guys go to the beach this month, so for the time being we have to make do with the likes of Ovadia Yosef.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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