It was during a midnight repast of shrimp couscous at a gay bar in Tel Aviv that I discovered Israel’s Foreign Ministry does not reimburse diplomatic staff for non-kosher, work-related meals in Israel. But that was just the beginning of my problems.
A spokesman for the ministry informed me of the non-reimbursement policy as we were enjoying our meal, served by a gay Arab waiter wearing a muscle shirt. But the chain of events leading to my discovery began when a Swedish journalist asked the Foreign Ministry to set up a tour of Tel Aviv’s legendary nightlife. A ministry staff member called me because I write frequently about Tel Aviv for various media outlets.
“I don’t think so,” I told the woman from the press department. “I already have dinner plans tonight, and I don’t do volunteer hasbara [Israel advocacy work].”
“Please,” she pleaded. “You have to do this. She’s the only pro-Israel Scandinavian journalist we have. And we’ll pay you.”
Oh well, if they’ll pay me…
“I won’t sugarcoat anything,” I warned her. “I’ll take her to gay bars and I’ll criticize Israel’s policies and…”
“Fine,” she said. “Say whatever you want. Just show her Tel Aviv’s nightlife.”
And that’s how I ended up on a Thursday night, the beginning of the Israeli weekend, in a taxi with a very blonde Swedish journalist and a rather charming minder from the foreign ministry. I directed the driver to one of Tel Aviv’s better-known lounge bars. As it turned out, the Swedish journalist was funny, intelligent and charmingly cynical. She told me that she was considered right-wing in her native country, but the political opinions she expressed were far more Obama than Bush. “Pro-Israel” seemed to mean that she was willing to condemn both Hamas’s Qassams and the IDF bombardment of Gaza in equal measure.
The minder paid for our drinks at the various bars. But when the bill for the shrimp couscous arrived, he flinched and muttered to me in Hebrew, “I don’t get reimbursed for this.” I immediately translated this for the Swedish journalist, who was looking at me inquiringly. She laughed, blew a stream of cigarette smoke at the ceiling, and assured us that she would put the meal on her own expense account. She ended up writing a very positive article about Tel Aviv for a major Swedish newspaper. The foreign ministry was delighted with the piece; they even translated it into English for their media kit.
But the incident at the gay restaurant stayed with me. My Israeli friends were disbelieving when I told them about the kosher-only policy. But there aren’t any good kosher restaurants in Israel, they exclaimed. The fact is, you can count the number of gourmet kosher restaurants in the Jewish state on the fingers of your two hands. The majority of Israelis do not keep kosher.
Surely, the policy was a case of religious coercion, said one lawyer friend. I wondered if Ali Yahya, an Israeli Arab who had served as ambassador to Helsinki and Athens, had been required to take his non-Jewish colleagues to kosher restaurants.
Finding myself at the foreign ministry on an unrelated matter, I stopped by the press department for a chat with the spokesman, Yigal Palmor, to ask what he thought of this kosher dining policy.
“It’s a totally irrational policy that creates an impossible situation,” Palmor said, without missing a beat. “There’s not a single decent kosher restaurant in the entire Galilee region – only kebab and hummus joints. Same goes for the Negev. So I’m supposed to take a delegation of Swedish diplomats on a tour of the north and stop for lunch at a hummus joint? It’s undignified and it creates a bad impression. And it’s hypocritical. Why would a secular Jew take a non-Jew to a kosher restaurant?”
Palmor added that “obviously,” Israeli diplomacy would not fail because of the kosher-only policy. “But it’s provincial and pointless,” he said, recounting that one European diplomat criticized Israeli hospitality to her own press corps, after a tasteless “official” meal at a kosher dairy restaurant. Palmor seemed quite happy to hear that I planned to write a story about the policy. So did a lot of other people at the Foreign Ministry, although none were willing to speak on the record. Apparently, there is rebellion in the ranks.
Yitzhak Eldan, the chef de protocol, decided upon the ministry’s kosher-only policy several years ago. “Some people resisted it,” he said. “They made their opposition clear. But I never doubted this was the way a Jew should behave. By the way, I heard that you live in Tel Aviv, whereabouts?”
“On Sheinkin Street,” I said, naming Tel Aviv’s equivalent to Manhattan’s West Broadway.
“Ah, Sheinkin. I moved to Tel Aviv recently, after I divorced my wife. I live alone, and I’ve never been to Sheinkin Street. Can you believe that? Perhaps I can take you out for coffee?”
Rather than respond to his invitation, I asked if he kept kosher.
“That is a private matter,” Eldan exclaimed. “I am not religious, but I believe that the policy of the ministry must reflect the sensitivities of all the people in the state of Israel, including the religious minority.”
And what about the Arab minority, I asked. Surely we must respect their rights, too.
“They must respect the majority,” said Eldan, in an increasingly agitated tone. “This is a Jewish state.”
“A Jewish state with about two million non-Jewish citizens,” I pointed out. “And besides, the best restaurants in Israel are all non-kosher.”
“Look,” Eldan responded. “First of all, Muslims keep kosher too. Yes, yes, their dietary laws are the same as ours.” Brushing aside my comment about the difference between Muslim and Jewish dietary laws, not to mention Christian Arabs, he barreled on, “But besides that, food is not that important. You don’t need to take diplomats to the most expensive restaurants. People can eat healthy salads and fish instead of a rich meal. And kosher food can be tasty, too. Once we took a delegation of foreign diplomats to a restaurant in Herzliya called Tzimmes. They were charmed when we ordered matzo balls for them.”
“The thing is,” I said, “The press department asked me to show a Swedish journalist around Tel Aviv’s nightlife, so I took her to a lesbian bar and a non-kosher restaurant and…”
“Why did you take her to those kinds of places?” he asked in a scandalized tone. “You couldn’t show her the nice side of Tel Aviv? What’s wrong with you? I am amazed that a Jewish girl represented the Jewish state with these views.”
“But I don’t work for the state,” I said, laughing. “And the foreign ministry is always boasting about Tel Aviv being so liberal and tolerant. It’s a secular city. I can’t get a kosher meal at a lesbian restaurant at 2 a.m.”
Eldan was sputtering with rage. “I don’t want to give you an interview,” he said. “I don’t like your attitude.”
“You already gave the interview,” I said.
“No,” he shouted. “I refuse. Everything I said is off the record.”
“It doesn’t work that way in a democracy,” I answered. “You can’t decide retroactively to declare an interview off the record, and you can’t stop me from writing about our conversation.”
“We’ll see about that,” screamed the chef de protocol of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “I am going to file a complaint against you. There will be consequences.”
The question is for whom, and will they be kosher?
Contact Lisa Goldman at email@example.com