My Word: Obama and the essence of Passover
A strong Israel is essential, as Obama recognizes, to protect not only the Jews everywhere, but the free world.
Jonathan and Esther Pollard Photo: Courtesy J4JP
Unbreakable bond; true friend; unshakeable ally. Many of the buzzwords
surrounding the visit to Israel by US President Barack Obama were clichés,
predictable. Something he said before his trip caught my attention, however. In
a much-quoted interview, Channel 2’s Yonit Levy asked the president, among other
topics, about the fate of Jonathan Pollard, who has served 26 years in an
American jail for spying for Israel.
Obama did not promise Pollard’s
parole – which would have been seen as a hugely popular humanitarian gesture in
Israel, particularly on the eve of the Passover holiday. But, the president
managed to capture in one phrase possibly the essence of being an Israeli, of
being a Jew.
“I recognize the emotions involved in this. One of the
strengths of the Israeli people is you think about your people wherever they
are. I recognize that and am sympathetic.”
And there you have it: The
“one-ness” that makes Israel Israel. Simultaneously, it is our strength and our
weak spot. The concept that “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh” – “All Israel is
responsible for one another” – is one of the most basic tenets of Jewish
Among those who are calling on Obama to show some compassion to
Pollard are Gilad Schalit, who spent five years in Hamas captivity, and Natan
Sharansky, a former Prisoner of Zion who suffered for years in a Soviet camp,
and newly crowned Miss Israel, Yityish “Titi” Aynaw, whose parents died in
Ethiopia before they could realize the dream of moving as a family to
The Jerusalem Municipality scrubbed and cleaned the streets in
honor of the American president. The Stars and Stripes are flying from lampposts
alongside the Blue-and-White Star of David. There are official signs of greeting
everywhere. But at junctions, on the balconies of private homes, and the windows
of offices another sign is prevalent.
“Yes you can,” read the placards,
sporting an image of Obama alongside Pollard.
Few Israelis believe that
Obama can bring peace to the Middle East; many doubt if he can even stop Iran
from becoming a nuclear player in a dangerous world; or if, at this point, he
can prevent chemical and biological weapons in Syria from falling into the hands
of terrorists. We’re not sure if he can stop the Arab Spring from replacing
regime after regime with Islamist theocracies.
What he can do is free
Pollard – a man who expressed his remorse even before his unusually long and
Pollard represents no danger to world peace.
passed on to Israel – an ally – classified material that he thought could help
defend the one democracy in the region: a country then and now living with a
threat unequaled in the Western world.
Obama says the aim of his visit is
to hear the ordinary person. He forgot, however, that what he calls “settlers”
are people, too. Our sense of solidarity extends to the Israeli students of
Ariel University – Jews and Arabs – whom he deliberately did not invite to his
He should keep in mind, even after his trip, that
everything he has seen was built and flourished despite the wars and terror. And
nearly everyone he has met – from the sweet children who sang for him or waved
flags, to the students he did address, and the guides at religious and cultural
sites – has known the fear of missile attacks and terrorism.
makes his first visit here as president, the vast majority of ordinary Israelis
are deep in preparation for Passover, a holiday which elevates spring cleaning
to feverish levels. It is a festival when families sit down together, dine
together, argue together and recall not only the personal events of the past
year but the miracle of the Exodus.
As we sit around the table, we are
commanded to tell of our escape from Egypt as if it happened to each of us
Passover, in effect, marks the birth of the Jewish nation and
the yearning to return to the Promised Land as a free people. Seder night is a
defining childhood memory for nearly all Jews, religious and secular, no matter
what community they belong to.
The miracle of Passover lies not only in
the events that took place in ancient Egypt; it lies in the fact that we
continue to tell the story and celebrate the holiday more than four millennia
For our “one-ness” is nurtured in part by a very long communal
memory. That, too, is our strength. At the Seder table, we teach our collective
children – our offspring, nieces, nephews or the children of neighbors and
friends – the same history, year after year. Our lives might be ever-changing but
the narrative remains constant – as familiar and comforting as the smell of the
dishes we eat on the night that is so different from all other
Ahead of the holiday, Jerusalem Post staff gathered for a toast.
The director-general of Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue, Rabbi Zev Lanton, gave a
short, inspiring talk, in the way of modern pulpit rabbis, combining quips and
wisdom. He shared a insight I had also heard from Holocaust survivor and former
chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau on one reason we eat a boiled egg in salt water at
the Passover meal: The more you cook an egg, the harder it becomes on the
inside. The Jewish people, likewise, have survived unparalleled hardships and
persecution – from the time of the pharaohs to modern times – and, to the
frustration of our enemies, the experiences have strengthened us.
the last few days, I have read stories commemorating the Toulouse School
Massacre in France a year ago, the 70th anniversary of the destruction of the
the Greek Jewish community in Salonica (Thessaloniki) during the Shoah, and the
burial of 17 bodies, discovered at the bottom of a well in the city of Norwich
in eastern England.
These were dated to the 12th or 13th century and many
presume they were Jewish victims in the city infamous as the place where the
world’s first blood libel was born in 1144.
At the Seder table we sing –
rather incongruously considering the words – “In every generation they arise to
destroy us.” Perhaps the joy comes from the verse reminding us that God saves us
In God we trust, but we also need a defense doctrine. It is
Israel’s guiding principle that the fate of the Jewish people cannot be
dependent ever again on anyone but ourselves. America, and Obama at its head, is
the most important of allies. But ultimately, we need to be able to ensure our
And this is where the differences of opinion between Obama
and Netanyahu are likely to lie – however friendly their talks this week, even
though they strolled jacket-less together on the airport tarmac like two old
schoolmates on their way to see the Iron Dome missile defense
Obama can count many American Jews among his friends. They are
people who also tell the same story and share the communal memories. But to
truly feel what it means to celebrate Passover, you have to be in Israel – the
Jewish state, the Promised Land – where the whole country takes on a special
Similarly, people here understand danger in a way that can’t
be felt elsewhere. Global jihad, a world threat, is here on our
A strong Israel is essential, as Obama recognizes, to protect
not only the Jews everywhere, but the free world.
So in the spirit of the
holiday, and that sense of solidarity that so impressed the US president, please
take time this Passover to remember the MIAs, soldiers who disappeared while
serving their country, their people and protecting the values of the free
The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem