Bill De Blasio, Ovadia Yosef and the Sandinistas

Judging by the polls, Bill De Blasio appears poised to be elected New York City’s  first Democratic mayor in two decades. He may also be the first American political candidate ever to be harshly criticized for embracing both the recently deceased Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinistas.

De Blasio’s Sandinista connection is the deeper-rooted of the two affinities. The Democratic mayoral nominee’s support for the Sandinistas came to light in a New York Times article last month on his youthful activism on behalf of the Nicaraguan socialist movement. Since then, this part of De Blasio’s biography — for which he makes no apologies — has been a focus of criticism from conservatives and his Republican opponent, Joe Lhota. Last week, historian Ronald Radosh went after De Blasio in a New York Post Op-Ed, pointing to anti-Semitic attacks by Sandinistas that contributed to the exodus of the country’s small Jewish community.


Now, De Blasio has landed in some hot water over a more recent foray into foreign affairs: a Twitter post praising Yosef, the founder of Israel’s Sephardic Orthodox Shas party who passed away this week. “Millions of people around the world lost a leader today in Rabbi Chacham Ovadia Yosef. His wisdom, charity and sensitivity were legendary,” De Blasio tweeted.

The problem for De Blasio (as various media outlets were quick to note) is that Yosef — while beloved by his followers and appreciated in certain respects even by some of his critics – was known for making statements about gays, Arabs, women and non-Jews that weren’t particularly “sensitive.”

And let’s just say the headlines weren’t very friendly:

“Bill De Blasio praises hateful rabbi” (N.Y. Post)

“Bill De Blasio Mourns Death of Very Racist Rabbi” (Gawker)

“Rabbi Mourned in New York, Becomes Divisive Issue in Mayoral Race” (Wall Street Journal)

In contrast to Lhota’s aggressiveness on the Sandinista issue, however, the Republican nominee — who, like De Blasio, has aggressively courted Orthodox voters — seemed disinclined to go after his opponent over his paean to Yosef. The Wall Street Journal reported:

At an event in Chinatown on Monday, Mr. De Blasio’s opponent, Republican Joe Lhota, was measured in his remarks about the rabbi. “I mourn his death,” Mr. Lhota said. “But I also know he’s made statements that, at the time, were unfortunate. He was the chief rabbi of Israel and we all mourn his death.”

Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for the public advocate’s office, said, ”Rabbi Yosef was a spiritual leader to thousands of Israelis and New Yorkers. Bill, like the US Ambassador to Israel, was offering his condolences, not an endorsement of his views.

Daniel Treiman is a contributing writer to JTA.