Israeli anger over Orthodox minister's Holocaust claim

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The Independent Online

Israel's Health Minister said yesterday that the assimilation of Jews into other religions throughout history was a greater tragedy for the Jewish people than the Holocaust.

The remarks by Nissim Dahan, of the Shas religious party – which belongs to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's coalition government – sparked an angry response. Mr Dahan said that if it were not for conversions and assimilation, the Jewish community would number hundreds of millions more. He said: "When you look at just the numbers, not at the suffering ... six million [who died in the Holocaust] is tragic but 200 million is even worse."

Holocaust survivors and their supporters insisted the killing of so many Jews could not be compared to a decision taken by Jews to leave their religion. "A comparison must never be made to the Holocaust, the greatest tragedy to befall the Jewish people and humanity," said a statement from the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

Yosef Lapid, a lawmaker and a Holocaust survivor, said Mr Dahan should resign. "That such a man can still be a minister the day after he said such a thing is horrible," he said. "This is a great stain on the Israeli government and Israeli society."

A commentator on religion, Asher Cohen, said Mr Dahan's claim represented a great fear among ultra-Orthodox Jews that the religion will disappear as Jews around the world intermarry and have children who are not raised within the faith. Almost half of American Jews marry someone who is not Jewish.

Mr Dahan made his remarks at a conference on Saturday, and repeated them on radio yesterday. As a movement representing Jews of Middle Eastern origin, Shas has often been accused of ignoring the deep emotions the Holocaust evokes. (AP)