Naftali Bennett
Naftali Bennett Israel news photo: Flash 90

Minister of Economics and Trade Naftali Bennett, the head of the Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) faction, slammed the media on Tuesday for its criticism of Rabbi David Lau.

Rabbi Lau, who was elected as Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel just days ago, was widely criticized for using the word "kushi" (Kushite) during a speech to yeshiva students. The word was once a neutral term for people of African origin, but in recent years has taken on a pejorative meaning.

The Rabbi used the word while urging yeshiva students not to watch soccer or basketball games - a speech that could be controversial in itself, as the hareidi-religious tendency to take a negative view of sports is largely not shared by other Israelis.

During his alleged address to the young students, which was made public by the hareidi Kav Hasifot phone line, Rabbi Lau joked, “What does it matter if the Kushites paid by Tel Aviv beat the Kushites paid by Greece?”

Those comments elicited an angry reaction from MK Penina Tamanu-Shata of Yesh Atid, who is of Ethiopian Jewish origin. 

“[Naftali] Bennett was right," she declared, "The Rabbinate needs to change. It’s outrageous that a rabbi in such an exalted position has expressed himself in such a racist manner,” she declared.

“If the Rabbinate looks like this for the next few years – oy,” she continued.

“Maybe when an Ethiopian Jewish couple comes to get married, the rabbi will say, who cares if Jewish kushis get married?” she warned.

“It’s very serious when a person who sees himself as worthy of serving as Chief Rabbi of Israel chooses to express himself in such a racist matter,” she concluded.

Tamanu-Shata's mention of Naftali Bennett was a reference to his position, shared by many Israelis, that the Chief Rabbinate had "lost touch" with the Israeli public, and needed a radical shake-up. Bennett and his party had backed Rabbi David Stav - a Religious-Zionist rabbi deemed more "moderate" than his hareidi predecessors.

But on his Facebook page, Bennett struck a conciliatory tone, urging the media to “Stop the ‘expressions hunt’ in Israel!”

“Last week Rabbi David Lau was elected as a Chief Rabbi of Israel," he continued, "While I supported Rabbi David Stav, I’m sure that Rabbi Lau will make a wonderful Chief Rabbi for the nation of Israel. He’s a Major in the IDF reserves, he was a dedicated rabbi of the city of Modi'in, and he loves the people of Israel.

“This morning, the media is attacking him for a joking side comment he made. Enough already. Just – enough,” Bennett wrote.

“Stop this ‘expressions hunt.’ Stop judging people for every little thing that happens,” he urged, concluding that “I am sure that we will do great things together for the people of Israel.

"Good luck to the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi David Lau!”