Israel’s Sephardi leader has received an unprecedented rebuke from the UK Chief Rabbi – for comparing a black child born to white parents to a “monkey”.

Sephardi chief rabbi in Israel, Yitzhak Yosef, was embroiled in a storm of controversy this week after appearing to compare black people to ‘monkeys’, while explaining a point about ritual.

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis took issue with the remarks, saying: “The terminology used is deeply offensive and totally unacceptable.

“My office has contacted the Chief Rabbinate in Israel directly to make that clear.”

Mirvis’ remarks come after Yosef, in a Saturday evening lecture, made his controversial comments, condemned as ‘racist’ by Board of Deputies of British Jews president, Jonathan Arkush.

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis

In a statement, Arkush said the Board deplores the “reprehensible racist remarks”, accusing him of having “betrayed his office”.

Yosef was speaking of the traditional blessing of the trees that takes place during Nissan, the current month on the Hebrew calendar.

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.