By Barry Rubin
There’s some controversy about President Barack Obama’s Passover message. The key passage is this:
“The story of Passover…instructs each generation to remember its past, while appreciating the beauty of freedom and the responsibility it entails. This year that ancient instruction is reflected in the daily headlines as we see modern stories of social transformation and liberation unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa.”
Ironically, of course, Israelis and Jews who support that country generally see that transformation as being in a negative direction from their standpoint and the forces being liberated involving a good deal of anti-Jewish ones.
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I think the greater problem here is the endless universalizing of specifically Jewish experiences that are never seen as sufficient in their own right, as well as the basic opportunism of making Passover into an event backing Obama Administration policy.
But a peculiar personal experience of mine has given this controversy a special meaning for me. Some years ago I attended a dinner in Washington that was one of those endless–and always futile–events bringing together Arabs and Israelis for “dialogue.” Since it was during the Passover table, the thoughtful hosts had placed matzo on the table.
One of the Egyptians, a relatively moderate diplomat who had built a whole second career in the peace process industry, said in an annoyed voice something like: “Isn’t this a Jewish holiday that celebrates a victory over the Egyptians?”
I had a fraction of a second in which I knew I had to think of the perfect answer. And it came to me. I replied, “That was during Jahiliyya times.” He nodded with understanding and the problem was solved.
The Jahiliyya era, for Muslims, was the time of pre-Islamic paganism and ignorance. In the Koran, the pharoah was a villain. So if it happened then he could see the “Egyptians” as having nothing to do with him and accept that the pharoah was a bad guy who deserved to be drowned in the sea.
Here’s the problem. When radical Islamists killed President Anwar al-Sadat, they said, “I shot the pharoah.” One of the reasons that Sadat was assassinated was because he made peace with Israel. Another reason was that he opposed making Egypt an Islamist state. Now that President Husni Mubarak has been overthrown, he’s referred to as the pharoah for reasons including those two.
An important lesson from Jewish experience–for those willing to heed it–is that change is not always good and that some things never change. But after all, the Jews were doing pretty well in ancient Egypt until there came a pharoah who knew not Joseph.
It is also no accident that the Passover seder reminds us: “In every generation, there are those that rise up against us to destroy us….” Wow, does the history of the last few years prove that to be true!
Left-wing Jews, who also generally don’t like Israel, have failed to grasp that lesson. And those who joined the Bolshevik revolution and the Communist movement thereafter often learned that lesson the hard way.
The Biblical text reminds us how the problem began. A new ruler decided that his predecessor had been too friendly to the Jews. Now, he warned, the Jews had become too strong and so must be defeated, enslaved, and finally wiped out entirely through a genocidal policy. That has rather different implications for the contemporary situation than the version given by Obama.
In the Middle East, the collapse of old democratic regimes and their replacement by Arab nationalist ones–and in Iran by an Islamist one–marked the end of centuries’-old Jewish communities. The passing of a bad ruler or a bad system often leads to a worse one.
It remains to be seen whether the recent events in the region are ultimately going to be ones of liberation for people living under the new regimes. It should already be obvious, however, that the result in Egypt is dangerous for Israel’s security and very bad for U.S. interests. The main concern stemming from Obama’s Passover message is that he still has no clue regarding this reality.
Lebanon and the Gaza Strip have gone the opposite way from liberation with no serious U.S. effort to reverse events or even realization that what has happened is disastrous social transformation at the hands of radical Islamism assisted by Iran and Syria.
Indeed, in Iran and Syria, two places where change could be genuinely liberating, the Obama Administration has done nothing to help.
More genocidal-minded radical nationalist and Islamist forces may come to power elsewhere. The main concern stemming from Obama’s Passover message is that he still has no clue about such things. Indeed, I think Obama genuinely does not understand that social transformation and change can be a very bad thing.
Finally, there is another aspect of Passover that Obama could chosen to have emphasized, though I doubt he heard the Reverend Wright preach on it. The purpose for which God took the Jews out of Egypt in the first place. For otherwise, the creator of the Universe might merely have transformed Egypt into a multicultural society, right?
“God spoke to Moses, and He said to him, `I am the Lord…I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob….I established My covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan….'”
At a time when Israel’s right to exist is coming increasingly into question–mainly so among Obama’s supporters–that would have been a nice gesture.
PS: Bonus supplemental jokes.
What will be Obama’s Hanukkah message?
Answer: It shows the need for renewable green energy since oil will burn for only one day and is thus unsustainable, but using wind and solar can make the lamp last for eight days!
What did Obama not want to remind people about Passover?
Answer: That as a prelude to enslaving the Jews, pharoah set the tax collectors on them.
Exodus 1/11: “So they appointed over them tax collectors to afflict them with their burdens….”
The Passover seder does not include the lines, “Next year in West Jerusalem.”
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The GLORIA Center’s webside is: http://www.gloria-center.org/. His blog is on PajamasMedia: http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/