One of Israel’s most senior religious leaders, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef,
has stoked controversy after calling black people “monkeys,” seeming to target black Americans specifically during a sermon.
Yosef made the remarks in footage aired by the Israeli news site Ynet, reportedly citing a hypothetical story about encountering a black person in the U.S. He then referred to black people using the pejorative Hebrew word “kushi” and called a black person a “monkey.”
In a response to the Israeli press, Yosef’s office said there was a religious context to the comparison made in the rabbi’s weekly sermon.
The Anti-Defamation League, a New York-based Jewish advocacy group that works to combat anti-Semitism and racism around the world, tweeted that the comment was “utterly unacceptable.”
A member of the Israeli Knesset, Pnina Tamano-Shata, the first ever Israeli parliamentarian of Ethiopian origin, told Ynet that she finds Yosef’s comments “degrading.” She reminded the rabbi that his father and another of Israel’s chief rabbis, the late Ovadia Yosef, supported the immigration of Ethiopian Jews, who are black, to Israel.
Pro-Palestinian activist group BDS South Africa issued a statement claiming the “vile” comments are an example of Israel’s treatment of African asylum seekers and its Palestinian neighbors, “The Israeli Rabbi’s views are vile but, sadly, also a reflection of Israel’s ongoing and wide-spread racism against Africans as well as the indigenous Palestinian people.”
According to Times of Israel, Yosef, who is the most senior rabbi in one of two mainstream strands of Orthodox Judaism, was addressing a religious legal question when he made the remarks.
It is not the first time the religious leader has caused controversy with his sermons. In May 2017, Yosef compared secular women to animals because they dressed immodestly.
In the same weekly sermon he warned Israeli soldiers that if they found themselves at events at which women were singing—a “deliberate display of provocation”—they should remove their glasses. Or, as Yosef had himself done at formal events, the men should be seen to look away from the singing and read a book.
In March 2016, Yosef was forced to retract a comment that non-Jews should not live in Israel. He said he was speaking theoretically and in practice non-Jews could live in Israel if they kept religious laws such as not committing idolatry and not eating the limbs from a live animal. He did add that non-Jews in Israel should serve Jews.
Yosef is the most senior representative of the Sephardic Jews, who trace their origins to the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa and the Middle East. Ashkenazi Jews, originally from Europe in those areas controlled by the Roman Empire, are led by Chief Rabbi David Lau.