Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, has been criticised after he likened a black child born to white parents to a “monkey” in explaining a point of ritual.
Yosef, in a Saturday evening lecture, was speaking of the traditional blessing of the trees that takes place during Nissan, the current month on the Hebrew calendar. He was addressing whether Jewish law requires saying the blessing upon seeing one tree or two.
Comparing the blessing of the trees to other blessings, he cited the blessing required when one sees an unusual or “differentiated” creature and noted that one does not need to seek two such creatures to bless them.
In a video obtained by Ynet, the online version of Yediot Acharonot, Yosef goes into an extensive discourse on recounting the blessing when one sees a black person. He repeatedly uses the term “Kushi,” which derives from the biblical term for Ethiopia. The term was commonplace in Israel’s early decades but has been seen since at least the 1980s as a mild pejorative.
Yosef said the blessing does not apply to every black person.
“You don’t bless every Kushi, you walk in American streets, every five minutes you see a Kushi, are you going to deliver the blessing of the differentiated? It has to be a Kushi whose mother and father are white … if you know, however you know, that a monkey son came forth from them, that it came from them this way, then you say on him, the blessing of the differentiated creature. So, you’re going to say, do you need two Kushis (to say the blessing)? No!” he said.
Ynet obtained a response from Yosef’s office which noted that the Talmud uses the example of a black person to explain appropriate uses of the blessing of the differentiated, and also mentions monkeys. However, the passage cited does not compare black children to monkeys. Instead it appears to list differentiated creatures that would require blessing, including black people, elephants and monkeys. Additionally, the use of the term Kushi is normative in the Talmud, but no longer so in everyday Israeli speech.
Board of Deputies of British Jews president Jonathan Arkush issued a statement condemning his comments. He said: “We deplore the reprehensible racist remarks made by the Dephardi Chief Rabbi fo Israel Yitzhak Yosef, who used a slang term and apparently referred to a black person as a monkey. In so doing he has betrayed his office. He should be working to eliminate all forms of racism, not voicing backward ideas.”