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 370 (photo credit: Courtesy of Justice4JP)
Jonathan and Esther Pollard 370
(photo credit: Courtesy of Justice4JP)
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 life.
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 Zion.
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 cruel sentence.
Pollard represents no danger to world peace.
He 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 public speech.
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.
AS OBAMA 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 personally.
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 later.
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 nights.
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.
Within 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 each time.
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 own safety.
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 system.
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 atmosphere.
Similarly, people here understand danger in a way that can’t be felt elsewhere. Global jihad, a world threat, is here on our doorstep.
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 world.
The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.

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