The Woman Who Refused to Shake President Biden’s Hand

An American President’s visit to Israel is always a special occasion. “The eyes of the world are watching”, Eitan Weiss, the Israeli Foreign Office’s visit coordinator told me. “Everything needs to be perfect, we are planning every move and rehearsing every step according to protocol”, he added while giving instructions to the man who played the president's part in the final rehearsal at Ben Gurion international airport.

President Biden had quite a busy visit to Israel. He visited the Holocaust memorial museum, “Yad Vashem”, and had a very emotional and lengthy talk with two survivors. The president met with the Israeli prime minister and opened the Maccabiah Games (the Jewish Olympics… Yes, it’s a thing). Although it was a visit that bears high stakes with issues like the Iran nuclear deal and although in the U.S everyone was talking about Biden’s fist bump with the Saudi crown prince, the thing Israelis spoke about most was a different handshake, or rather a refusal to shake hands.

The Israeli President’s office knows how to throw a lavish party. A special cocktail was made with the flags of the U.S and Israel uniquely printed. Two of Israel’s leading singers were invited to sing a duet for the president, Ran Danker, and Yuval Dayan. When the song was over, the American president seemed touched. He signaled the singers to come over towards him and stood up from his chair. This is what happened next:

After shaking hands with Danker, the president moved toward Dayan and stretched his hand. Dayan raised her hands and held them together in appreciation, she bowed slightly, and politely refused to shake the president’s hand. The Israeli President overcame a brief moment of awkwardness and explained. President Biden seemed to be taking the whole thing in good spirits, he retracted his hand and continued the conversation.

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Yuval Dayan is a 27-year-old singer who originally rose to fame ten years ago as a participant in the Israeli version of “The Voice”. Since the early auditions stage, Dayan was a clear favorite. She breezed through the elimination rounds and reached the semi-final. She gained huge publicity, fame, and public support but in a shocking move announced that she will be quitting the show. “I want to continue doing music”, the then 17-year-old explained, “but at my own pace”. Dayan was a young woman who would follow her heart above any other interest, and her announcement made it very clear.

Dayan continued making music and went through a personal journey as well. She became closer to God and gradually became an orthodox Jew. As part of her new religious identity, Dayan started exercising what is known as “Shmirat Negiah” or “Observant of Touch”. This orthodox Jewish principle prohibits a person from having any physical contact with a person of the opposite sex, excluding immediate family members, for reasons of modesty. Dayan leads her life refraining from physical contact with men, all men, including the President of the United States.

A fierce debate came to life, in Israel as a whole but more interestingly, in the Jewish orthodox communities. “Shmirat Negiah” is somewhat of a controversial act within different communities, and not all Jewish scholars see eye to eye regarding it. Many religious Jews don’t follow this principle at all, others differ in the extent of the practice. Many questions arose throughout the years, such as what to do on a crowded bus. Most Rabbis would agree that an accidental touch with a stranger would not amount to an act of lust or desire and so it is not prohibited.

Shaking hands is a more complex issue. Is there anything immodest in a handshake? Well, I think most would agree that it really depends on the handshake, isn’t it? The debate is complicated and has many different factors. Which cases amount to a legitimate handshake and which wouldn’t? Different rabbis have different answers. Yet one question seems to be even more complicated than others; What should be done when a person already stretched out his/her hand to shake that of a “shomer negiah”?

In Judaism, there’s a famous principle that goes ״דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה״ — “Derech Eretz Kadma Le Torah” — Proper behavior precedes the Torah. This means that facing a choice between being a decent person or fulfilling the rules of religion, proper behavior triumphs. This principle is very relevant when dealing with other people. Many rabbis would agree that making a person feel welcomed, being polite, or making sure the other person is not offended by your actions could overcome following certain religious rules.

I presume you see where this is going. After the whole handshake incident, many criticized Dayan, mainly for allegedly embarrassing President Biden. Rabbi David Stav, an important figure in a less harsh section of the Orthodox Jewish communities said that while there is a debate surrounding handshakes, he would have shaken the hand that was reached towards him. “I wouldn’t have initiated the handshake”, he said, “but in order to respect the dignity of the person in front of me I would have shaken it when offered”.

There were those who sided with Dayan. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, for example, praised Dayan for sticking to her beliefs. “There’s a sensitive way to avoid shaking hands and she had done it”, he said. Those who defended Dayan recalled a story about Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu visiting England and meeting the Queen. The Queen then offered to shake the Rabbi’s hand but he declined. That evening, the story goes, Buckingham Palace sent the Rabbi an official apology for any offense made towards him.

The debate, however, did not stay only in the circles of Jewish scholars. The public had a lot to say about the issue, many criticized Dayan claiming she has no manners. Dayan quickly answered back in a long Instagram post. She told of a years-long inner conflict that led her to decide to avoid physical touch with men. She shared how she consulted with many people, from religious figures to diplomats, on how to act in front of the American President. She recalled how happy she was when the first reports ahead of the visit said that Biden won’t be shaking hands due to Covid-19.

She said that she couldn’t sleep all night when she saw he did shake hands with people upon his arrival and that she made sure everyone involved with organizing the event knew that she doesn’t shake hands with men. “It’s easy to light up fires on social media”, she wrote, “but there’s a family here, there are real people… Those who said I have no manners should apologize, not to me, but to my parents”.

The final accord of this story came in the form of a short video posted by the American ambassador to Israel. Ambassador Thomas Nides had a message to Dayan from President Biden, supporting her for her decision:

That pretty much settled this specific incident. However, it’s safe to assume that the questions surrounding handshakes for those who observe “Shmirat Negiah” will go on, furthermore, so will the age-old debate on that thin line between how we should respect each other versus how we should respect our God.

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