The race to head Israel’s two Chief Rabbi posts ended last week after a fair amount of drama—and mud-slinging. Newly elected Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau spent the following days speaking to the press, promising to be the unifying, pragmatic and even progressive figure that much of this country’s mainstream saw in Rabbi David Stav, the liberal who lost the elections. Lau was described as his father’s son—his father being Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv and a fairly popular Ashenazi Chief Rabbi himself until a decade ago. Lau the younger even showed off his iPhone.
But judging by a recording recently broadcast by a Haredi news service, Lau isn’t always such a unifying figure—nor is he a fan of technology. Speaking at an ultra-Orthodox summer camp, Lau told a group of youngsters that he had trouble defending Haredi youth against critics intent on drafting them into the IDF, when confronted with the behavior of many of these yeshiva students. While the Haredi community claims these individuals must be exempted from the army in order to study Torah, Lau said, this argument is often belied by their conduct. For instance, many Haredi youth can be found in local establishments in the evenings, watching the exploits of Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Euroleague basketball series. “On some Thursday nights in my hometown of Tel Aviv” said Lau, “the kiosks have a screen that has colors on it, surrounded by people. Some of them have a hat and suit on, some of them just a shirt, but most of them have their tzitzit out and wear a black kippah.” It’s a fair point, but the rabbi’s next one wasn’t: “Mai nafka minnah,” he jokingly asked (a Talmudic phrase meaning “what difference does it make”), “whether the kushim paid in Tel Aviv beat the kushim paid in Greece?”
While the word kush has biblical origins (for example, the first verse of the Book of Esther refers to lands of Kush), kushim has been used in Israel as a derogatory term for black people for decades, almost as bad as the N-word (though lacking that word’s deep, painful history). And while the national pride caused by the success of the Maccabi Tel Aviv team, many of whose stars are not actually Israeli, has been a source of mystification for some, racism is clearly not the proper response.
This is not the first racism scandal surrounding the club. Pini Gershon was Maccabi Tel Aviv’s coach when he was caught on camera in 2000 riffing about how he could tell the difference between the intelligence levels of his players based on their respective skin colors. “The mocha-colored guys are smarter, but the dark colored ones are just guys off the street,” he said. “They’re dumb like slaves, they do whatever you tell them.” Soon after the tape surfaced, Gershon quit his post.
It’s highly doubtful that Lau will follow suit, but he’s found himself a harsh critic in MK Pnina Tamano-Shata of Yesh Atid, the first female Ethiopian Knesset member. “If this is the face of the Rabbinate in the coming years, then woe to us,” she said. “Maybe the next time an Ethiopian couple approaches him, the Rabbi will ask, ‘who cares if Jewish kushim get married?’”
Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.