JERUSALEM — In a fireside chat that ended up setting the Mideast political tinderbox ablaze, a powerful rabbi crucial to Prime Minister Ehud Barak's peace moves described Holocaust victims as "sinners" and Arabs as "snakes."
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, started the Jewish week Saturday night by saying victims of the Nazi Holocaust were reincarnated souls seeking redemption for past sins. He also said in the sermon that Barak "lacked sense" for seeking to make peace with the Arabs, whom he described as "snakes."
Reaction was quick Sunday. Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, the leader of a secular rights party, compared Yosef to Joerg Haider, the Austrian politician who has praised the Nazis.
"If this was Haider, we would have shut down the Austrian embassy posthaste," Lapid told Israel TV.
He said Yosef, who represents Sephardic Jews of Middle Eastern origin who resent Israel's once-dominant Ashkenazi Jews, was engaging in racist rabble-rousing. The vast majority of Jews killed by Nazis were Ashkenazi.
On Monday, police detained a man outside the rabbi's Jerusalem apartment who told a passer-by that he planned to "put a bullet in his (Yosef's) head." A search revealed the man, who said he had lost his entire family in the Holocaust, did not carry a weapon, said police spokeswoman Sigal Toledo.
Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian negotiator, decried Yosef's remarks about Arabs as "racist incitement" and said he would demand that Barak apologize.
While Barak is no longer responsible for the utterances of Shas leaders — it is one of three parties that quit on the eve of last month's Camp David summit — the prime minister is still assiduously courting the party.
Ministers in Barak's government say Shas is essential if Barak wants to reconstitute the government and strike a peace deal with the Palestinians.
"What Rabbi Ovadia said is reprehensible, but that doesn't mean it should have political implications," Absorption Minister Yuli Tamir told Channel 2.
Shas' political leader, Eli Yishai, was blunter: "The wise man understands that there is no government without Shas."
Barak feels he needs the party's 17 seats in the 120-seat legislature and the credibility delivered by its hawkish Sephardic constituency to sell the far-reaching concessions that arose at Camp David.
His reaction was typically muted, saying only that Yosef's remarks "were liable" to offend Holocaust survivors.
Yet the strong feelings the party inspires could also turn against Barak. Until now, Lapid's party, Shinui — which backs the peace process — has mostly abstained in opposition no-confidence motions against Barak's government.
Recently, however, Shinui legislators say they would prefer to go to early elections — polls show the party gaining seats precisely because of such provocative sayings. Their six seats could tip the balance and force new elections.
Lapid's anger resonated among Holocaust survivors — who number, with their children and grandchildren, in the hundreds of thousands.
"I received dozens and dozens of phone calls because people don't understand," said Noah Pflug, head of a Holocaust survivor umbrella group who himself lost 119 relatives to the Nazis. "I also don't understand. . . . The million and a half children were guilty?"
The Nazis and their allies murdered 6 million Jews — including 1.5 million children — in German-occupied Europe from 1939 to 1945.
Shas spokesmen dismissed the Palestinian complaints as hypocritical — Palestinian school textbooks still feature anti-Semitic caricatures, and Palestinian clerics have described the Holocaust as a hoax — but they were hard-pressed to explain why Yosef even broached the Holocaust.
"It was taken out of context," Yishai said, visibly agitated in a Channel Two interview — but unable to explain what the context was. "Those who don't understand should go study."
Legislator Shlomo Ben-Izri was almost apologetic — unprecedented for Shas politicians who are slavishly faithful to Yosef, at least in public.
"He didn't prepare his sermon, he started talking about the Holocaust," he said. "Myself, I would never have said this, but the rabbi has insights."
When an Israel TV interviewer chided him that "in your heart of hearts, you'd rather not have to explain this," Ben-Izri smiled and nodded.
Yosef would not explain, except to later say that his remarks had been distorted and that the Holocaust dead were "pure."
The rabbi, who is noted for his dovish views on peace, may feel threatened by a hard-line flank in his party that has long portrayed him — in a campaign of whispers and rumors — as soft on Arabs.
Such accusations most likely sharpened after Camp David, where Barak broke a long-standing taboo and agreed to negotiate Jerusalem, and Yosef may have been seeking to restore his street credibility by attacking the Arabs.
His comments on the Holocaust — the first he has ever made — are harder to explain. Discussion of reincarnation is marginal in Judaism, and limited to the learned.
Israel TV said Yosef mentioned reincarnation only twice before in his career — and each time by saying that sinning souls had occupied innocent hosts to seek redemption. That explanation is not untypical of a religion that recognizes God's will as often beyond comprehension, yet to be experienced with love and faith.