Israel mulls criminal action against top rabbi who called black people ‘monkeys’

Justice Ministry said considering various steps against Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, examining whether remark constitutes incitement to racism

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (R) speaks during a ceremony before the Passover holiday, April 9, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (R) speaks during a ceremony before the Passover holiday, April 9, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Israeli government is considering criminal action against the Sephardic chief rabbi after he likened black people to monkeys during his weekly sermon last weekend.

A Justice Ministry official said Thursday that the ministry has contacted relevant authorities to review the remarks by Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and decide if they constitute incitement.

Yosef’s reported statement is “very serious” and could “justify various measures — administrative, disciplinary and even criminal — against the rabbi, if it turns out they constitute incitement to racism,” Avka Zana, head of a Justice Ministry unit that combats racism, said.

Ynet quoted the anti-racism unit as saying it was “examining various measures on the issue, and has requested relevant authorities to check and inspect the remarks, so they will be examined in depth and appropriate action taken.”

“The unit will continue following developments and will take all necessary measures to prevent the recurrence of racist remarks like this in the future by state officials and public servants,” the unit said.

In a video shared by the Ynet news site, Yosef was addressing Jewish legal aspects of the blessing made upon seeing fruit trees blossoming, during the current Hebrew month of Nissan, and, specifically, whether one should bless one tree or at least two.

In that context, he discussed another blessing mentioned in the same section of the Talmud, which is recited upon seeing an “unusual creature.” The Talmud states that the blessing should be recited when seeing “a black person, a very red or very white person.”

Yosef explained that the Talmud is not referring to an African-American, but a black person born to two white parents. When referring to African-Americans he used the word kushi, which is the word used by the Talmud but is a pejorative term in modern Hebrew. He then compared this black person to a monkey.

“You can’t make the blessing on every ‘kushi’ you see — in America you see one every five minutes, so you make it only on a person with a white father and mother,” the chief rabbi said.”How do would you know? Let’s say you know! So they had a monkey as a son, a son like this, so you say the blessing on him.”

In response, the rabbi’s office said that he was merely citing the Talmud, which states that the same blessing is recited upon seeing an elephant, a monkey or an ape.

The Anti-Defamation League slammed Yosef on Tuesday, calling his comment “utterly unacceptable.”

Yosef has been known to court controversy in his sermons.

In a sermon delivered in May last year, he appeared to suggest during his weekly sermon that secular woman behave like animals because they dress immodestly.

In March 2016, Yosef was forced to retract a comment that non-Jews should not live in Israel, calling it “theoretical.”

He said non-Jews could live in Israel only if they observe the seven Noahide Laws, which are prohibitions against idolatry, blaspheming God, murder, forbidden sexual relations, stealing, and eating limbs off a live animal, and which prescribe the establishment of a legal system.

Non-Jews, Yosef said, are in Israel only to serve Jews.

Israel has two chief rabbis. Yosef represents those with origins in the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa, and the Middle East, and David Lau represents Ashkenazi Jews, with origins in European lands of the Roman Empire.

Sue Surkes and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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