Nonkosher Food for Thought
Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a three-day visit to Italy.
On Thursday, he attended the Israeli pavilion at the Expo Milano 2015. As head of the “startup nation,” he rightly boasted of Israel’s achievements in science and technology, which he said could tackle such social issues as global hunger.
On Friday, he met in Florence with leaders of Italy’s 24,000-strong Jewish community, after which he stated, “Israel considers Italy a natural bridge for Europe, because it’s the country that strives to understand Israel’s needs.”
On Saturday evening, he met with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s City Hall, to talk about the more pressing purpose of his trip: discussing the Iranian nuclear deal and bilateral relations between Italy and Israel.
After the meeting, the heads of state dined at Enoteca Pinchiorri, considered one of the world’s best restaurants.
As such, it was only natural for Renzi to take Netanyahu there. While Netanyahu’s calling card is Israeli innovation and brainpower, Matteo’s is culture, art and, of course, heavenly food, as anyone who has been to Italy can attest.
Upon Netanyahu’s return to Israel, his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners began to grumble about his having violated Jewish dietary laws while abroad. In interviews with the haredi website Kikar Hashabat, a number of these politicians let him have it.
One said he “expected the prime minister of Israel, who represents the Jewish state in an official capacity, to behave with more statesmanship and not to eat publicly in such a restaurant,” adding, “Whoever maintains a religious constituency that keeps Jewish traditions and considers themselves a major partner of the haredi parties, should have behaved with more caution and sensitivity, considering he speaks so highly of his own respect for the traditions of Israel and the Bible.”
This wasn’t the first time Netanyahu and other Israeli public figures have been attacked by ultra-Orthodox politicians and pundits for their dining habits.
Last year, after addressing the U.N. General Assembly, Netanyahu had lunch with casino magnate (and Israel Hayom owner) Sheldon Adelson at a nonkosher New York eatery, which the haredi press called a “pig restaurant.”
This was reminiscent of a similar ultra-Orthodox outcry spurred by the late and legendary Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek — not for his eating in a nonkosher restaurant, but for eating at all. In public, no less. In the Holy City, to boot. On the eve of Tisha B’Av, the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple, which is a fast day.
It is hard for anyone living in Israel today to believe that a few decades ago there was even a single restaurant open on Tisha B’Av. Over the years since the incident, after which Kollek profusely apologized for his “faux pas,” all places involving food or entertainment began to close down on that evening, even in Tel Aviv, a city considered so secular that it is teased about not being part of the Jewish state.
Like Kollek’s before him, Netanyahu’s response has been to go on the defensive when accused of behaving inappropriately where his Judaism is concerned. This week (as last year, after his “scandalous” New York meal), he insisted that he hadn’t ingested anything nonkosher in Italy. He even went as far as to insist that he does not even partake of nonkosher food in the privacy of his own home, where he claims to observe Jewish traditions.
This might even be true, since all official residences in Israel have kosher kitchens, to enable the invitation of Orthodox guests to the table.
But does it really matter whether an Israeli leader keeps strictly kosher wherever he may travel?
Perhaps. But thus far, the Jewish state has not had a single Orthodox prime minister; yet all have been publicly sensitive to the sensibilities of the religious sectors of society.
The haredim, on the other hand, go after any and every Jew, including if he is Orthodox, who does not conform to a set of standards set by a particular rabbinical authority.
Furthermore, if the haredi politicians who claim Netanyahu “should have behaved with more caution and sensitivity” were genuinely concerned about the negative effect his eating at a nonkosher restaurant could have on the Orthodox population, why call such attention to it?
It is unlikely that these politicians had ever heard of the gourmet restaurant Renzi selected prior to Netanyahu’s trip to Florence. This means they were watching his every move from afar — literally looking into his plate. Spying for a slip-up.
It is, to borrow their own phrase, “piggish” conduct, which runs contrary to the spirit of Judaism.
Ruthie Blum is a Tel Aviv-based author and journalist. This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.