An Israeli basketball official caused a storm Tuesday after he used a racist slur to describe five players on the roster of European powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Oded Tira, the chairman of the newly established National Council for Sport, called the players “kushim” while congratulating Maccabi chairman Shimon Mizrahi for his team’s victory over Spain’s Real Madrid in the Final Four of Euroleague basketball championship last Sunday night.
Kushi is a taboo Hebrew slur for a dark-skinned person that is often compared to the N-word although it does not have the same cultural baggage associated with it.
“Congratulations on the achievement,” Tira told Mizrahi during a celebratory event to mark the council’s first ever meeting, “although some people were unhappy that Maccabi played with five ‘kushim’ throughout much of the game.”
He was referring to criticism that has been leveled at Maccabi over the years for the often meager playing time given to the Israeli players on the team.
Tira’s comments were met with immediate condemnation from the audience at the event, among them former Olympic Judo wrestler Yael Arad, who urged the council chairman to retract his statements, the Channel 5 sports news website reported.
Tira later apologized and said he had no intention of offending anyone.
“I do not judge people based on the color of their skin,” he said. “I’m sorry if my statement was misunderstood and if it hurt anybody.”
Mizrahi himself attempted to clarify the comment, saying that Tira had actually meant to call the players “foreigners.” Tira had said that although no Israeli player took part in the final two minutes of the game, the victory was a great achievement nonetheless.
Tira was appointed to head the council earlier this year. Before that, he served as president of the Manufacturers Association of Israel and was among the founders of the Israel Security Council.
The May 19 final was settled in a nail-biting, 98-86, overtime victory for the Israeli team. Maccabi chalked up its first European championship win since back-to-back wins in 2004 and 2005, and its sixth overall.
Last year, David Lau, the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel, was broadly condemned for a racist comment about basketball players at the Maccabiah Games.
Exhorting his ultra-Orthodox constituents to devote their time to learning Torah rather than watching basketball, Lau said, “Why do you care about whether the kushim who get paid in Tel Aviv beat the kushim who get paid in Greece?”
Those comments drew a firestorm of criticism, with Ethiopian-born MKs Penina Tamnu-Shata and Shimon Solomon railing against the chief rabbi’s use of the term and his implication that those who are black are not “one of us.”