Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, delivered one of those mystifying sermons (English) that only true believers can fathom. The problem is that they live in such a cocoon insulated from the rest of the world that neither their spiritual leader nor themselves understand how tone-deaf (aka “racist) they are.
In a dvar torah (sermon) he delivered about blessing trees, the rabbi tried to differentiate between when you say a blessing over a tree species you see and when you don’t. For some bizarre reason, he chose to liken trees to seeing different races of people walking in the street. And yes, an Orthodox Jew is supposed to say a blessing when he sees a person of a different race, especially of a type he (because mostly men perform such religious mitzvot) has never, or rarely seen.
Before launching into the sermon itself, it’s important to understand that the Hebrew word kushi meant a Black person (from the ancient African land of Kush) during the Biblical and Talmudic era. However, it has come to have a deeply pejorative meaning today. Google Translate translates the word as “nigga.” Since Rabbi Yosef is definitely not street wise, it’s highly unlikely that’s the word he meant. In fact, he was reverting to the traditional meaning of the word, in using kushi. The problem is that no one in Israel uses that word unless they mean it as a slur. And he should know this. Due to the insularity of his movement, he doesn’t.
Adding insult to injury, he calls a Black child with white parents a “monkey,” implying that the child’s color is as unnatural as human parents giving birth to a monkey. The good rabbi doesn’t have the most elementary grasp of genetics (and that’s not all). If he’s ever seen a black child with white parents they’re certainly not his biological parents. He may have actually been referring to mixed race couples whose children are black. But he certainly doesn’t make that clear here.
On the kushi issue we might be able to give him a pass. But here he’s gone several steps over the line into outright obnoxious racism. I’m going to leave the word as it is, transcribed from Hebrew, in my translation. You can fill in the suitable translation of your choice.
The rabbi tells his listeners:
If you see a strange person, you say a blessing to God for creating different types of creatures. When you see a kushi, you say a blessing. Which kushi? When you see his parents are white. You don’t say a blessing for every kushi you see [i.e. only unusual ones].
If you go down the street in America, every five minutes you’ll see a kushi. Should you say a blessing [in such circumstances]? No, rather it must be a kushi whose mother and father are white. Him you would bless [i.e. because he is an odd or strange individual]. If you know that they had a son who is such a monkey, that it is their [biological] son, then you would say the blessing.
Yosef has a long history of saying such disgusting things. Among other statements, he’s said that mixed-gender classes violate halacha and that it’s simply impossible to educate small children of the age of 9 in such mixed classes.
Yosef’s father, the previous chief rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, was as bad or worse. He blamed Hurricane Katrina on the fact that Black victims didn’t study Torah. He also said that non-Jews were created to be “donkeys” for Jews. He’s also decreed that ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is justified under Jewish law.
Before Israel apologists here dismiss these statements as the rantings of an out of touch Orthodox rabbinic outlier, it’s critical to understand that the Yosef dynasty not only represents Mizrahi Jews, it also spearheads the Mizrahi political movement in the form of Shas. It is one of the most important religious parties in the current government. Its views are decisive in formulating legislation on issues of concern to it. So hatred like this is absorbed into the Mizrahi body politic, where it plays a major role in determining many Israeli social attitudes.
Not to mention, that Israeli rabbis aren’t just spiritual leaders of their respective movements. They are actual employees of the state, whose salaries are paid by the Israeli taxpayer. When a rabbi speaks, he doesn’t just speak for himself or his disciples. He speaks on behalf of the State as well. That is only one of the more pernicious examples of the toxic relationship between religion and state in Israel.