I can’t get enough of the Rabbi Ovadia Yosef story, of the press’s failure to talk about his racism. Here is a shocking obituary at NPR for the rabbi, by Bill Chappell. There’s no sense that he was a racist who rationalized genocide against Palestinians and who said Hurricane Katrina’s black victims brought it on themselves. Some NPR nuggets:
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “the Jewish people have lost one of the wisest men of this generation.”…
The New York Times gives us a sense of the man:
“Clad in his distinctive uniform of turban, gold-embroidered robe and dark glasses, etc.
There’s one little fragment of criticism, from NPR:
the outspoken rabbi also famously called several other leaders “evil” — including Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas.
Compare that to the obit in the Forward, the Jewish newspaper. It doesn’t foreground his racism, but it includes extensive quotations showing his intolerance. And here is a terrific remembrance at the Forward, by Aaron Magid, titled “Rav Ovadia Yosef was provocative bigot.”
At the same time, we should not be blinded by his political or religious importance to his shameful discriminatory language. When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Yosef said black Americans brought the disaster on themselves.
“There are terrible natural disasters because there isn’t enough Torah study,” he said. “Black people reside there (in New Orleans) Blacks will study the Torah? (God said), ‘let’s bring a tsunami and drown them.”
The rabbi’s offensive talk was not limited to the African American community. In 2007, Yosef explained that some Israeli soldiers are killed in battle because they are not observant enough.
More at the link. Oh, but here’s Magid’s last paragraph, doing the most vital work of the eulogist, explaining who someone was, in full:
There is no doubt that Yosef was a key politician, especially for Sephardic religious Jews with roots in the Arab world. However, the understandable impulse to placate an important political base should not prevent Israeli leaders — and opinion leaders — from acknowledging Yosef’s true self. For the sake of black Americans, slain IDF soldiers, and Holocaust survivors, we must not forget.
The problem: How can the general press justify whitewashing a foreign Jewish extremist when Jews aren’t doing so, and some of them are citing the concerns of other members of a diverse American community? I believe the whitewashing demonstrates sensitivity to the sensibilities of a minority community, which is legitimate, but also an unconscious deference to the Israel lobby. (Yosef was an Israeli, remember. The analogies to Jerry Falwell are therefore not fully apt.)