Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has publicly condemned the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel for referring to black people as “monkeys”.
Rabbi Mirvis criticised Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef for his “deeply offensive” comments, describing them as "deeply offensive and totally unacceptable." It is believed to be the first time a Chief Rabbi of the UK has ever publicly criticised a Chief Rabbi of Israel.
Rabbi Mirvis also said that his office "has contacted the Chief Rabbinate in Israel directly" over the issue.
In a sermon this week, Rabbi Yosef was discussing blessings made when one sees an “unusual” person. The Talmud describes how such a message is made when one sees a black person, a red person and a very white person.
According to Rabbi Yosef, that the blessing should not be made every time one sees a black person – “in America you see one every five minutes.
“So you make it only on a person with a white father and mother… they had a monkey as a son, so you say the blessing on him.”
Rabbi Yosef also used the word kushi to describe black people. Although a word used in the Talmud, in modern Hebrew kushi is a pejorative term for black people.
The Chief Rabbi’s comments came after criticism of Rabbi Yosef earlier this week from the UK’s Board of Deputies.
In a statement from Jonathan Arkush, president of organisation, the Board said it “deplored the reprehensible racist remarks made by Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, who used a slang term and apparently referred to a black person as a monkey.
“In so doing he has betrayed his office. He should be working to eliminate all forms of racism, not voicing backwards ideas.”
Rabbi Mirvis’s office also said that Chief Rabbi Yosef’s office told them that there was certainly never an intention to cause such offence.
Earlier in the week, a spokesperson for Rabbi Yosef said that he was talking in the context of the Talmud, which says that the same blessing is recited on seeing a number of creatures, including monkeys and apes.
This is not the first time Rabbi Yosef has made controversial comments. Last year he preached that women should dress modestly “because they are not animals”. In 2016 he stated that non-Jews should not be allowed to live in Israel, except to serve the Jewish population, but later reversed this position.
The S&P Sephardi community in the UK has been contacted for comment.
David Arden, Chief Executive of the S&P Sephardi Community, said:
"Words of public personalities can and are often taken out of context. It is disheartening, however, to hear the apparent great disconnect that the Sephardi Chief Rabbi’s comments express between his important leadership and office — an office that is meant to represent the entire Sephardi community worldwide – and the people.”