Newly elected Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau became embroiled in a controversy on Tuesday after he was recorded making remarks about African-American basketball players that some judged as racist.
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"Why do you care whether these Kushim [a derogatory term used in Hebrew for black people] who are paid in Tel Aviv beat the kushim who are paid in Greece?" Rabbi Lau said in a meeting with ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, in an attempt to dissuade them from watching basketball on television. The recording was broadcast by Hakol Haharedi, a Haredi news service.
Lau also said that yeshiva students who are seen watching television in public harm the ultra-Orthodox community's efforts to avoid blanket draft to the Israel Defense Forces.
"If the general public sees yeshiva students engaged in Torah studies and not watching TV, their questions about draft-dodging will disappear," he said.
MK Pnina Tamano-Shata (Yesh Atid), an Israeli of Ethiopian origin, accused Rabbi Lau of racism.
"It's unacceptable that a man who sees himself as worthy of serving as Israel's chief rabbi exhibits such poor choice of words," she said. "Sadly, he is the face of the Chief Rabbinate. Next time an Ethiopian-Israeli couple asks him to marry them, he might say, 'Why do you care whether Jewish kushim marry?'"
Similar statements were made by the incoming Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who in May accused the Treasury of financing "kushim in basketball" at the expense of synagogues and mikvehs.