Chief Rabbi David Lau responded on Wednesday to a flurry of criticism that followed his comments about black basketball players, which were derided by some as derogatory and racist.
“We’re experts at taking a joking comment and turning it into a big deal,” Lau told Army Radio. “The headline of [my] comment was clear: Guys, you’re yeshiva students, so sit and learn Torah.”
Lau, who was elected for a 10-year term as Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi on July 24, gave a talk on Sunday to a seminar in Modiin Illit for students of the Beit Matityahu Yeshiva, where he once studied. In the talk, he expressed concern over many students’ habit of watching televised sporting matches in neighborhood corner stores, in the process using the term “kushim,” which is widely seen as a epithet for blacks.
“On certain Thursday nights in the wintertime, there is this screen filled with colors and many people standing around it watching,” Lau said. “These are people who might be wearing a [black] suit and [black] hat” – a reference to typical Haredi garb – “or only a shirt, but most have [ritual] fringes outside their shirts and a black kipa on their heads.”
“What do you get out of it when the kushim who are paid by Tel Aviv beat the kushim who are paid by Greece?” Lau asked, referring to foreign basketball players hired by Israeli and Greek professional teams.
Lau added that if the Israeli public saw Haredi yeshiva students more engaged in their studies rather than standing around television screens on street corners, the public debate about Haredi conscription would disappear.
A video and photos from Lau’s talk were posted online by the Haredi website Bechadrey Haredim.
The comments drew a firestorm of criticism, with Ethiopian-born Yesh Atid MKs Penina Tamnu-Shata and Shimon Solomon railing against the chief rabbi’s use of the dismissive term and his implication that those who are black are not “one of us.”