When the State Department released some 7,000 pages of Hillary Clinton’s emails on Monday night, reporters and conservative activists alike immediately dug in, hoping to find something fishy. They got their wish – although perhaps more literally than they would have expected.
With the subject line “Gefilte fish” and just five words in the body of the email – “Where are we on this?” – Twitter users quickly seized on the mysterious March 5, 2010, memo from then-Secretary of State Clinton to top aide Jake Sullivan and assistant for legislative affairs Richard Verma.
What could it all mean? Was Clinton asking Sullivan and Verma if they were fans of the bizarrely textured, spongy Passover appetizer that has grossed out Jewish children for generations? Did “Gefilte fish” really refer to a mixture of ground fish like carp, whitefish or pike, or instead signal the secret alias of a mystery person? Was Clinton waiting for a rather specific Seamless order?
No, of course not.
According to Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, the email most likely had to do with an ongoing trade dispute, in which nine containers of carp – measuring in the tons – were scheduled to be shipped from Illinois to Israel just before the Passover holiday, which began on March 29 that year. Israel had reinstated a 120% import duty on imported carp, raised in then-Illinois Rep. Don Manzullo’s district, which jeopardized the shipment.
Oren told msnbc on Tuesday how a “really angry” Manzullo – who had appealed to Clinton for an exception to the tax – repeatedly called him to do something about the situation.
After dealing with weighty issues like terrorism and rocky relations with Iran, “I was unprepared for this,” Oren said of the carp fiasco, which is also described in his memoir, “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide.” “This was a unique challenge … Every time the congressman called on me, he was successfully more strident. I don’t think I’ve ever been talked to like that by a congressman.”
Oren recounted being in a meeting in Washington, D.C., with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when the Republican congressman came in and “started complaining to him about the carp.” He described Netanyahu being “flummoxed” and having the attitude of “I’ve got bigger things to deal with.” Oren told the prime minister that he’d take care of the fish.
Eventually, a one-time exception was agreed upon and the carp was able to make its way to an Israeli port. Clinton reportedly drew laughs from a congressional panel at the time when she reportedly joked the issue “should rise to the highest levels of our government.”
A spokesperson for Clinton and Manzullo did not return requests for comment. But Oren described how Manzullo called him to say thank you after the agreement was reached. “One question,” he recalled the congressman saying. “What do you Israelis do with all that carp?”