Public Advocate and Democratic mayoral nominee Bill de Blasio released a statement Monday praising the former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, Ovadia Yosef, who died after a long illness at 93.
“Millions of people around the world lost a leader today in Rabbi Chacham Ovadia Yosef,” said de Blasio in the message, which came from the public advocate’s office, not his mayoral campaign. Chacham is Hebrew for scholar.
“His wisdom, charity and sensitivity were legendary. My thoughts and prayers are with Chacham Ovadia’s family and the millions of mourners around the world.”
Rabbi Yosef’s death has touched off debate about his legacy, balancing the rabbi’s commitment to Torah Judaism and his halachic wisdom with his history in his later years of offensive statements about non-Jews and gays. The web site Gawker compiled a list of those statements and criticized de Blasio for his statement. The New York Post also picked up the story Tuesday with the headline “Goy Vey! What a Putz! Bill [loves] racist rabbi.”
After de Blasio tweeted a short version of his statement, some of his followers objected, with one, Jeremy Levine, replying “you just lost my vote.”
The public advocate’s spokesman, Wiley Norvell, later said ““Bill, like the US Ambassador to Israel, was offering his condolences, not an endorsement of his views.”
At a campaign stop in Chinatown Monday afternoon, Lhota made a more nuanced statement, saying “I mourn his death, but I also know that he’s made statements over time that were unfortunate.”
Councilman David Greenfield, formerly the head of the Sephardic Community Federation, later tweeted “It’s ironic that ‘liberal’ Bill De Blasio was more respectful of the passing of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef than ‘conservative’ Joe Lhota.”
In his statement, Anti-Defamation League executive director Abraham Foxman praised Rabbi Yosef as “one of Judaism’s towering rabbinic figures” but added “ee disagreed with some of his statements in the past which we considered intemperate and biased.”