JERUSALEM -- The Israeli government has announced that it is dismissing the American scholar who is in charge of deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls and who has made remarks interpreted as antisemitic.

The Israeli announcement on Monday cited health reasons for the dismissal of 60-year-old John Strugnell, who has been splitting his time between Jerusalem and the Harvard Divinity School, where he is a professor.

In an interview published in Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, in November, Strugnell said: "I think Judaism is a racist religion. Something very primitive. What bothers me about Judaism is the very existence of Jews as a group, as members of the Jewish religion.

"I think {the Sabbath laws} are a wonderful excuse for laziness. When I look at details in the Halakha {Jewish law based on oral tradition}, including sex, I think -- that's amusing. It's not religion. These people act according to what I call folklore." Strugnell also described Judaism as a "Christian heresy" and said he thought its adherents should convert.

Eugene C. Ulrich, professor of theology at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind., and a member of the international team of scrolls editors that Strugnell headed, said Strugnell had been suffering from a serious circulatory ailment and had undergone an operation for gangrene in Jerusalem. More recently, Strugnell has been under medical care at a Massachusetts institution, where doctors would not comment on the nature of his illness.

Amir Drori, current director of Israel's Antiquities Authority, which has custody of the scrolls, said Strugnell was relieved of his post on the recommendation of the authority's three-member Scrolls Advisory Committee. The Israeli action came after the six-member international editorial team consisting of American, French and Israeli editors recommended Strugnell's replacement early in December.

The first of the scrolls, the earliest of which date to 100 B.C., were discovered by shepherds in caves near the Dead Sea in 1947. Among the most important biblical discoveries of the century, they contain the oldest known copies of most of the books of the Old Testament, along with other religious texts, ancient poetry and literature.

Scholars have suggested that the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls were the Essenes, a cult of Jewish ascetics and mystics who lived near Qumran from the 2nd century B.C. until the 2nd century A.D.

Most of the scrolls have been translated, and some are on display in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

But thousands of fragments remain undeciphered and unpublished and are under study at the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem. Strugnell headed the research team sifting through them.

Strugnell had been working on the scrolls since 1952, when as a young English student he joined a team of scholars authorized to study them by the Jordanian government, which had custody of the documents before the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

After the war, when East Jerusalem was seized by Israeli paratroopers, the Israeli government took custody of the scrolls, but the original team of scholars was allowed to continue translating the texts.

Strugnell headed the research group that had sole access to the fragile fragments. Its members prepared translations and interpretations, and he decided when and if to publish their findings.

Over the years, many scholarly critics have charged that the scrolls team has been inordinately slow in publishing its work and has blocked access to the documents by other scholars in the field.

Geza Vermes, a professor at Oxford University and the author of "The Dead Sea Scrolls in English," has complained: "Forty years since the beginning, and we still haven't gotten a list of the documents."

Saying he has not been allowed to see the fragments, Vermes added: "Nobody knows what's there. Such a scandal is difficult to quantify."

Magen Broshi, curator of the Shrine of the Book here, said that 80 percent of the scrolls had been published and that the delay was partly because of the difficulty of piecing together thousands of fragments, but that another reason was "indolence and selfishness" on the part of the accredited scholars.

Drori said that with Strugnell's removal, work on translations, newly headed by Emanuel Tov, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, would be speeded up.

"What interests me," Drori said, "is getting the scrolls published. Everyone who is professionally qualified -- Iraqi, Syrian -- is welcome to try. We are working on the project without a connection to peace. I hope peace will come tomorrow, but we intend to publish regardless."