Last Passover, at a restaurant in Rishon Lezion in central Israel, the holiday special was fried calamari dipped in matzo meal instead of flour.
This combination — treif food with a nod to the Jewish festival — was not considered at all strange. In most parts of Israel, outside of Jerusalem and a few other Orthodox enclaves, the majority of Jews define themselves as secular or traditional.
While they might light candles on a Friday night, their chicken dinner is promptly followed by coffee with milk, in front of the television. Perhaps they will catch one of several cooking shows hosted by home-grown Jamie Olivers, demonstrating how to prepare recipes with shellfish, pork and liberal combinations of dairy and meat.
And try looking for a high-end kosher restaurant. They are the exception, listed in Time Out Tel Aviv in an anaemic column entitled “Kosher dining”.
This is the reality in today’s Israel. But for some reason the Foreign Ministry feels it must force its staff, the majority of whom are not observant, to eat only kosher food when they host non-Jewish diplomats. This is true even for Muslim, Christian and Druze staff hosting other non-Jews.
But this is hypocritical. The Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Tourism promote Tel Aviv’s annual gay pride parade; they run advertising campaigns featuring bikini-clad local models. They eagerly promote articles about Israel’s critically acclaimed restaurants — almost none of them kosher.
At the same time, Israel’s leaders insist their country is a “Jewish” state. But they have not defined what “Jewish” means — perhaps because they cannot. It would be interesting to do a quick inspection of the home kitchens of the MKs belonging to non-religious parties. How many keep kosher or observe the Sabbath according to halachic principles? How many of them attend synagogue or even know the liturgies? Not many, I suspect.
Defining a state as “democratic” and “Jewish” is a tricky business. By incorporating religious practice into government, Israel plays right into the hands of those who claim it is no better than repressive, reactionary states like Iran and Saudi Arabia. It also means that the wishes and rights of the substantial non-Jewish minority are ignored.
The question is, does Israel want to be perceived as a modern, liberal state, or as a backward, theocratic one? For those of us who live in Israel and value freedom, the answer is obvious.