Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef said this week that Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment for U.S. President George W. Bush's support for Israel's disengagement from Gaza.
"It was God's retribution - God does not short-change anyone," Yosef said during his weekly sermon on Tuesday. His comments were carried yesterday on the Yedioth Ahronoth news Web site, Y-net. Shas official Tzvika Yaacobson did not deny Ovadia made the comments, but said they had been taken out of context.
"[Bush] perpetrated the expulsion [of Jews from Gaza]," Ovadia was quoted as saying. "Now everyone is mad at him. This is his punishment for what he did to Gush Katif, and everyone else who did as he told them, their time will come, too."
Ovadia's comments drew fierce criticism in a Ynet readers forum. "This is one of the most idiotic, offensive pronouncement I've seen yet about the hurricane," said one reader, identifying himself only as Howard. "It rivals the kind of idiocy we've seen from Islamic extremists."
Another reader, Jennifer, wrote: "You stupid ignorant little man. How can anyone blame this disaster on politics? Go crawl back into your little hole before you do any more harm."
Shinui MK Ronnie Brizon was quoted as saying: "What, God is cross-eyed? He metes out punishments at the wrong place? We're sick and tired of Rabbi Ovadia's primitive worldview. He already did his part; he can remove himself from public life."
Ovadia is no stranger to controversy. Last March, he declared that God would strike dead "the evil one" who evacuates Israelis from the Gaza Strip, referring to Sharon.
He has called on the Israeli army "joyfully" to annihilate Arabs with rockets, and caused a huge uproar in 2000 when he stated that the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust died because they were reincarnations of sinners in previous generations.
This morning, meanwhile, an Israeli aid delegation and shipment will be flown out to New Orleans, with some 80 tons of equipment donated by various organizations to be sent to the disaster area.
"The shipment is just a drop in the ocean; we won't be the ones to save the situation, but it is our moral duty and in doing so we express our solidarity," a member of the delegation said.
For their part, Israeli universities are offering to help U.S. students caught in the path of Hurricane Katrina, and the Magen David Adom rescue service is to fly 15 tons of aid supplies to victims.
MDA said a consignment of water, mattresses, bedding, clothes, baby food and diapers would be flown to the United States today and would be distributed in the disaster area by the American Red Cross.
A delegation of doctors and rescue workers organized by IsraAID will also fly out to the disaster area tomorrow.
The universities are offering places to students from Tulane University in New Orleans, whose courses have been disrupted by flooding. The Jewish Agency said in a statement that the offer was open to students of all denominations, also noting that there were around 2,000 Jewish students in the New Orleans area.
Bar-Ilan University said it was offering special scholarships to students whose studies were disrupted by Katrina. The scholarships, details of which are shortly to be published in American newspapers, will cover tuition and living expenses, the university said.