JERUSALEM, March 19 (JTA) The spiritual leader of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party may face charges of incitement for calling on his followers to lay a curse on a Cabinet member.
Israel’s attorney general held discussions Sunday on whether to file the charges after Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef compared Education Minister Yossi Sarid to Haman, the figure from the Book of Esther who seeks the destruction of the Jewish people.
In his weekly broadcast to followers, Yosef condemned Sarid, saying he should be obliterated from the Jewish people and that God would surely wipe his name out.
Yosef said that when the Book of Esther is read this week during the holiday of Purim, Jews should say, “Cursed is wicked Haman, cursed is wicked Yossi Sarid.”
Prime Minister Ehud Barak joined Israeli legislators from across the political spectrum in denouncing Yosef’s comments.
The rabbi is a “spiritual leader whose words have great effect,” Barak was quoted as telling the Cabinet at the start of its weekly meeting Sunday.
In an apparent reference to the atmosphere of incitement that prevailed before the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Barak said, “We have seen the effect of unwarranted hatred, not only in previous eras but in recent times.”
Yosef’s remarks came amid an ongoing dispute between Sarid and Shas over the religious party’s financially troubled educational system.
Under a deal recently worked out with the government, Sarid agreed to transfer funds to the debt-ridden school system on the condition Shas officials streamline its administration and meet certain educational criteria.
Shas has accused Sarid of acting in an abusive manner toward the schools, which serve working-class members of Israel’s Sephardi population, who in turn provide the main pillar of support for the party.
Shas is the second-largest party in Barak’s governing coalition, and the premier counts on its support for his peace moves.
However, Shas’ disputes with the government over funding its school system have jeopardized that support.
In a preliminary vote recently in the Knesset, Shas legislators backed an opposition-sponsored bill that would make it nearly impossible for Barak to win a planned referendum on withdrawing from the Golan Heights as part of a peace deal with Syria.
Though Shas said at the time it was voting out of concern for the Golan, observers suggested their vote was intended as a warning to Barak that he must heed the party’s demands.
Sarid refused Sunday to comment directly on Yosef’s remarks, but he told a news conference that he had done his best to demonstrate understanding for Shas’ cash-strapped school system.
Even though Shas has “still not presented a budget for the year 2000, funds continue to be transferred in an orderly fashion” to help maintain the schools, he said.
Shas Cabinet members accused Sarid of misleading the public about the situation with the school system and defended Yosef’s remarks.
Health Minister Shlomo Benizri said the remarks were made when Yosef was in an emotional state after hearing from officials in the Shas school system about its dire economic situation.
“He certainly did not intend to prompt anyone to take any kind of action as a result of his words,” Benizri told Israel Radio.