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Israel’s Prime Ministers: Not Kosher?

Benjamin Netanyahu is under fire for eating trayf. So did Yitzhak Rabin.

Yair Rosenberg
July 26, 2013
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is silhouetted as he arrives to deliver a statement to the media at the Knesset, on July 22, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel.(Baz Ratner-Pool/Getty Images)
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is silhouetted as he arrives to deliver a statement to the media at the Knesset, on July 22, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel.(Baz Ratner-Pool/Getty Images)

The last time Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s culinary preferences were called into question, it was for his penchant for consuming large quantities of ice cream. But MK Aliza Lavie of Yesh Atid has just leveled a more dire accusation: that the Prime Minister and his staff have not been eating kosher while abroad. This, argues Lavie, has had deleterious consequences for Israel’s attempts to soften legislation in Poland barring religious slaughter for Jews and Muslims. “Many lawmakers we met said that during the last visit [to Poland] of the prime minister, the Israeli side didn’t insist on kosher meals,” Lavie told Army Radio, reports the Times of Israel. “The Polish interpreted that as signifying that kashrut was not a very important issue.”

This isn’t the first time the kashrut of Israel’s prime minister has become a political liability. As Ambassador Yehuda Avner recounts, Yitzhak Rabin didn’t keep kosher either, but worked to maintain the fiction that he did, fearing outcry from the religious parties in his coalition if the truth came out. Rabin went to such lengths to conceal his dietary deception that he once lied to the President of the United States at a state dinner. Avner recalls the 1974 incident in his memoir:

Soon, everybody was chomping on their succulent fare except me. I had pre-ordered a vegetarian kosher dish which, for some reason, tarried. Perhaps it was because my place card had been misspelled: instead of “Yehuda” it was engraved “Yeduha Avner.”

A couple of chairs away the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General George Brown, was chatting with Barbara Walters, the famous television celebrity, who was sitting on my right. Within minutes, the general caught sight of my still-empty place setting and, craning his neck to note my name card, boomed, “Yeduha, not eating with us tonight?” Whereupon, as if on cue, a butler stepped forward and placed before me a vegetarian extravaganza consisting of a base of lettuce as thick as a Bible, on top of which sat a mound of diced fruit, on top of that a glob of cottage cheese, and on top of that a swish of whipped cream, so that the whole thingamajig must have stood about a foot high. In contrast to everybody else’s deep brown roasted pheasant, it glittered and sparkled like a firework.

Gasps of admiration greeted this fiesta of color, and Barbara Walters began to applaud. This attracted the attention of President Ford who, half rising to see what the commotion was about, whispered something into Yitzhak Rabin’s ear, who whispered something back into his. Then, rising to his full height and grinning from ear to ear, the president raised his glass high and called out to me with an overflow of well-being, “Happy birthday young fella! Let’s sing a toast to our birthday boy.”

With that, the entire banqueting hall rose to its feet and, goblets aloft, chorused a hearty, “Happy birthday dear Yeduha.” And as they sang I slouched sheepishly further into my chair, mortified.

In the ballroom after dinner I asked Rabin why on earth he had told the President it was my birthday, and he shot back, “What else should I have told him – the truth? If I did that, tomorrow there’d be a headline in the newspapers that you ate kosher and I didn’t, and the religious parties will bolt the coalition, and I’ll have a government crisis on my hands. Ani meshuga? Am I crazy?”

With the benefit of hindsight, we can now answer: apparently not.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.