For the first day of Joe Biden’s visit to Israel, the buzz about handshakes was that, despite a pandemic-related plan, he was giving them at all.
That changed last Thursday. That’s when Yuval Dayan, an Israeli pop star, left the U.S. president hanging after Biden extended his hand to her.
Dayan and another singer named Ran Danker had just performed a rendition of the classic song “Lu Yehi,” or “Let it Be,” at a ceremony marking Biden’s receipt of Israel’s highest civilian honor. Afterward, Biden and Israeli President Isaac Herzog approached the artists to thank them.
Danker took Biden’s outstretched hand, but Dayan bowed instead, clasping her hands together and smiling.
What Biden didn’t know was that Dayan has committed to refrain from touching members of the opposite sex. She is famous in Israel in part for becoming more religiously observant. She has embraced the principle of shomer negiah, a prohibition on opposite-sex touching that some Orthodox Jews believe is required, as well as not performing on Shabbat or Jewish holidays.
The prohibition is rooted in the idea that any touch can lead to sexual impropriety. An Orthodox European Parliament candidate refusing to shake women’s hands caused a minor political crisis in 2014. Meanwhile, when Tzipi Hotovely, an Orthodox lawmaker, gained authority over Israel’s Foreign Ministry in 2015, she said she would shake hands with men who offered her theirs despite ordinarily refraining from touch. She noted that traditional Jewish law makes allowances for honoring dignitaries.
“It’s not a problem at all,” Hotovely told Israeli media at the time. “When someone meets foreign representatives the Jewish halacha [law] recognizes respect, etiquette and politeness.”
The incident with Biden went viral in Israel. Dayan, who came to fame as a contestant on Israel’s version of “The Voice,” said she had sought to avoid appearing to slight Biden and had communicated her needs to Herzog’s staff.
“I made sure to notify everyone in the president’s office that I am shomeret negiah,” she said, according to Israeli media. “God forbid I did not mean to offend.”
— Caleb Guedes-Reed