White House advisers and married couple Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump arrived in Israel to help facilitate President Trump's much-debated decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. But after Kushner and Ivanka were blessed by a rabbi with a controversial history, they're facing criticism of their own — domestically and abroad.
The rabbi who performed the blessing is Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef. Aiden Pink reported at Forward that Yosef came under fire in March for using a derogatory term for black people in one of his sermons while explaining when a person is required to give a certain blessing. The word Yosef used was "kushi" — a biblical term that is now considered a racial slur. Yosef went on to compare African-Americans specifically to monkeys.
According to the Times of Israel, Yosef said in March, "You can’t make the blessing on every 'kushi' you see — in America you see one every five minutes, so you make it only on a person with a white father and mother... So they had a monkey as a son, a son like this, so you say the blessing on him."
The Anti-Defamation League immediately condemned Yosef's message, writing at the time that "comparing people of color to 'monkeys' is utterly unacceptable."
It wasn't the first time Yosef found himself in the hot seat for offensive remarks. In 2017, the Times of Israel reported that Yosef said, "A woman is not an animal, she has to keep her dignity. To be modest [in her dress] is her dignity.” The comments came during an exhortation to religious Israeli Defense Forces soldiers to ignore women performers who might be included at certain military events.
Rather than participate in the purportedly unlawful performances, Yosef encouraged his listeners to adopt his own method of ignoring them. The rabbi related how at an event with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuvin Rivlin, he had opted out of watching or listening to a woman's performance by conspicuously reading a book held directly in front of his face.
"That way they could all see that I am not listening, my head is in the book, close to what matters," Yosef said. The Times of Israel went on to note that Yosef's religious tradition proscribes men listening to a woman sing full stop, unless it is during a religious service.
Yosef also said that secular people had no idea how much "we respect the woman."
Jacob Kornbluh, a political reporter at Jewish Insider, posted a photo on Sunday of Kushner and Trump with Yosef. Kornbluh wrote on Twitter that the couple "also received a blessing" from Yosef.
The new U.S. embassy — the reason Trump and Kushner are currently in Israel — will open Monday in Jerusalem. President Trump's decision to relocate the embassy from Tel Aviv brought plenty of opprobrium from a range of critics, particularly among the international community. As the BBC recently noted in its coverage of Kushner and Ivanka Trump's trip, "Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital broke with decades of US neutrality on the issue and put it out of step with most of the international community."
But not everyone dislikes the change. Netanyahu is a huge supporter of the official embassy move, and Haaretz reported that the Israeli prime minister has been pressuring some smaller European nations to follow suit. Hoping to create a "wave" of embassy moves, Israel has been attempting to persuade Romania and the Czech Republic to open new embassies in Jerusalem. Thus far, the EU nations have not committed to such a move. However, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Honduras have announced they will be opening new embassies in Jerusalem.
On a trip in need of no further controversy, it seems Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump may have found exactly that in accepting a blessing from Yosef.