Food Fights: Jewish Cuisine Makes Headlines in U.S. and Israeli Diplomacy

Hillary emails about gefilte fish, Obama walks miles for a bagel and Netanyahu gets slammed for snails.

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This is gefilte fish. It is popularly served with jellied broth and carrot.
This is gefilte fish. It is popularly served with jellied broth and carrot.Credit: Nir Kafri

Has classic Jewish soul food ever featured so prominently in a single U.S. political news cycle?

While Republican presidential candidates were vying for Jewish affections by posturing against the Iran nuclear deal, Monday's headlines suggest that the country’s two leading Democrats showed a firm commitment — if not to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's stance on Iran — then, at least, to Jewish cuisine.

In the case of Democratic 2016 presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, a brief but intriguing email from her private server released on Monday night’s data dump spotlighted an incident in which she was instrumental in getting American carp onto Israeli Passover seder tables.

The subject line of the March 2010 email ,sent to Richard Verma, then the assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, and aide Jake Sullivan read simply: Gefilte fish.

And the contents of the email: “Where are we on this?”

The crack journalists pouring through the Clinton email avalanche were briefly stumped as to what this mysterious missive was referring to - with plenty of jokes on social media about a matter that “smelled funny” and needed to be investigated.

But soon enough, it became clear that the secretary of state had been diligently following up on the Great Carp Crisis of 2010. The trade dispute took place in late February of that year when, just before Passover, the Israeli government reinstated a high tax on imported carp, the fish that is ground up to make gefilte fish.

Israeli fish farmers had complained that imported carp from the United States was cutting into their profit margin, and successfully lobbied their government to bump up the import duty on carp to 120 percent. This angered carp exporters in Clinton’s home state of Illinois, who had nine containers filled with thousands of pounds of Asian carp ready to ship to a processing plant in Israel in time for seder night, and had been thwarted by the new tax. Republican Illinois Congressman Don Manzullo spearheaded the effort to free the fish and send it on its way to the Holy Land, implored Clinton for help at a session of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, warning that “Passover’s coming quickly,” and reached across the aisle to ask for Democratic help “to get the gefilte fish to Israel, by Passover.”

President Barack Obama's views of the Iran nuclear deal are surely familiar to all, but who knew the president was a 'poppy-seed' man, bagel-wise. Credit: AP

Let My Gefilte Fish Go!

Amusing headlines like "Let My Gefilte Fish Go!" and "Clinton: Gefilte Fish Wants to be Free!" ensued after Clinton got laughs at the hearing, saying that it “sounds to me like one of those issues that should rise to the highest levels of our government,” and promising Manzullo that she would get the fish onto Israeli seder plates.

In his memoir "Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide,” former Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren recalled that Clinton told reporters: "You think finding Middle East peace is hard," Secretary of State Clinton blithely told reporters. "I’m dealing with carp!" and that afterwards Prime Minister Netanyahu called him to ask what Clinton was talking about.

The March 10 email offers evidence that the matter was no joke to her - Clinton had diligently followed up on the fishy situation. Indeed, according to Oren’s book, the secretary of state kept her promise and the Illinois carp was allowed into Israel on a one-time basis.

It just so happened that on the very same day, President Obama demonstrated that he had nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to appreciation of Jewish soul food. Hit with an unexpected question in the extensive interview he granted to The Forward’s Jane Eisner, he revealed himself as a fan of fine bagels. Asked at the tail end of her interview what his favorite was, Eisner recounted:

“Obama was starting to rise from his high back chair, but he sat back down and took the question with relish. 'I was always a big poppy seed guy,' he told me."

But the really impressive part of his answer wasn’t the type of bagels the president said he liked, but rather his favorite bagelry. Jewish New York foodies who know their bagels are aware of the tragedy of the closing of the H&H Bagels on the Upper West Side. And Obama displayed apt disappointment over the closure, terming it “shocking” and recalling that as a Columbia University student he used to hike the 40 blocks south to pick up his poppy-seed bagel, with his preferred topping of “just a schmear.” (Lox and capers, he said, were “okay” but his preference was “generally just your basic schmear.”)

While it's doubtful this will warm the hearts of Jewish foodies who oppose the Iran deal, Obama’s in-depth knowledge of bagels does demonstrate a measure of inter-ethnic appreciation. For some though, sentiments aren’t enough. The New York blog “Gothamist” demanded to know why Obama hadn’t taken action, chiding him: “ISN’T IT SHOCKING? WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT, MR. PRESIDENT?"

The blog continued: "H&H shuttered in the midst of Obama’s first term, having survived —nay, thrived — during the administrations of Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and both Bushes. Obama may have expanded healthcare coverage, pulled our economy out of the literal gutter, strengthened diplomatic relations ... but he was unable to save the city’s best bagelry, and for that he should always be remembered. Kanye, take note — you would do well to make this the cornerstone of your upcoming presidential campaign.”

The last line refers to the tongue-in-cheek announcement by hip hop star Kanye West at the MTV awards that he is running for president in 2020. We’ll see if Kanye comes away from his concert in Tel Aviv at the end of this month with strong opinions about where to get the best hummus in Israel, or at least, Tel Aviv. Last time he was in town, West found himself embroiled in the kosher food wars, when ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem politicians objected to the fact that the city’s mayor, Nir Barkat, hosted West and his reality star wife Kim Kardashian in a non-kosher establishment.

But don’t blame Kanye. Food — particularly the onus to keep kosher — can lead to sticky situtations even for the smoothest of Israeli politicians. Just ask Netanyahu, who is currently under fire for dining with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in a renowned gourmet restaurant in Florence that serves up decidedly non-kosher specialties like rabbit, snails and lobster. Even though Netanyahu's office insists he didn’t indulge in any of those dishes, the meal has gotten the PM in trouble with the ultra-Orthodox parties in his government, upon whom his ruling coalition depends.

As far as they’re concerned, he’d be better off forgoing the Italian delicacies and sticking to gefilte fish and bagels.

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