Opinion | ‘Lobstergate’ and Non-Kosher Coercion

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By Ruthie Blum

In the midst of countrywide fury in Israel over two deadly serious issues — the killing of an Ethiopian Israeli teenager by a police officer in Haifa, and the abuse of toddlers at a private Rosh Ha’ayin daycare center — Israeli Twitter users turned their attention to a faux pas involving non-kosher food and Photoshop.

The “diplomatic incident” that caused a social-media storm occurred last week, when the Israeli Embassy in Brazil proudly tweeted a picture of Ambassador Yossi Shelley having lunch with President Jair Bolsonaro. In the photo, the two are seen dining at a restaurant ahead of the Copa América soccer championship, which they were attending together.

The trouble surrounded the food: two plates of whole lobsters. Someone in the PR department at the Israeli Embassy must have concluded that such a display would cause a problem for Shelley, since lobster is prohibited by Jewish dietary laws.

To stave off anticipated criticism, the Israeli Embassy decided to doctor the photo with Sharpie-like X-marks over the two lobsters.

As soon as the photo was posted, the Twittersphere went wild with ridicule, more for the poor job of camouflage than over the fare itself. Memes included a screenshot of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” poster with the lobster next to her blacked out. Another was a photo of a pineapple pizza with the fruit covered in black marker.

The following day, the ambassador released a statement about the gaffe to reporters, claiming: “1) The meal in question took place at the presidential palace, Bolsonaro’s residence; 2) All kinds of dishes were served, including salmon; 3) I did not eat what was put on my plate [but did not reject it], so as not to offend participants; 4) For the same reason, I blacked out the photo, so that, heaven forbid, it would not be misinterpreted; 5) Brazil won the finals.”

In an interview about “lobstergate” on Israeli TV, Shelley said, “All kinds of seafood, if you want to call it that, was served. I don’t eat that stuff, and certainly never order it. I put it aside and took salmon, which is similar in color. You’re at a private meal and served food. What are you going to do? Throw it away? … So I didn’t eat the shrimp … I did eat, but … ”

Confused, his interviewer asked, “So, you did eat shrimp?”

“No,” Shelley replied. “Absolutely not.”

The fact that Shelley doesn’t know the difference between lobster and shrimp suggests he was telling the truth about not partaking of it. Many Israelis find shellfish and pork repugnant.

The positive side to this story is that the country had some comic relief from the clawing controversies of the day. Less amusing is the reason behind Shelley’s need to explain himself: fear of arousing the wrath of the country’s more extreme religious elements.

In August 2015, for example, after meeting with then-Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in Florence, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was taken to Enoteca Pinchiorri, one of the world’s best restaurants.

Upon his return home, Netanyahu’s traditional Orthodox coalition partners began to grumble about his violating Jewish dietary laws abroad. 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.”

A year earlier, after addressing the U.N. General Assembly, Netanyahu had lunch with casino magnate Sheldon Adelson at a non-kosher New York eatery, which the haredi press called a “pig restaurant.”

This was reminiscent of a similar haredi outcry spurred by legendary Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek — not for his eating in a non-kosher restaurant, but for eating at all 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 “blunder,” 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 before him, Netanyahu’s response was to go on the defensive. Following both of his own dining “scandals,” the Israeli premier insisted that he hadn’t eaten any non-kosher food, going as far as to assert that he keeps a kosher home.

This might even be true since all official residences in Israel have kosher kitchens to enable the invitation of Orthodox guests to the table. Nobody disputes that such sensitivity to religious-Jewish ritual is fitting.

But why should haredim, different sects of whom don’t even validate the kosher certificates of competing rabbinical authorities, be preoccupied with the food served in other countries to Israeli politicians and diplomats — many, if not most, of whom aren’t observant — particularly when those figures are engaging in important state business? More importantly, why do dietary critics wish to call attention to practices that they consider unorthodox?

The irony is that “only eating salmon” is not an excuse in the eyes of sticklers. From their perspective, no food in a non-kosher establishment is permissible. Nor can any amount of black ink scrawled pathetically over a plate of lobster blur that reality.

Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ This article originally appeared on JNS.org.

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