President Obama is the first American president to host a Passover Seder in the White House--second year in a row, third overall (the first was held in a hotel during the presidential campaign).
If symbolism was all that mattered to American Jews, then the president's annual observance of the Seder surely surpasses George Washington's Letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island. As a sign of respect for a time-honored Jewish ritual and a great photo op in the Old Family Dining Room (the president, sans yarmulke, drinking kosher wine and welcoming the Prophet Elijah, who somehow managed to sneak by the Secret Service), if the president were to do nothing else for American Jewry throughout the remainder of his presidency, the Seder itself would have been enough--Dayenu.
Well, not exactly. Commemorating the ancient Israelis, those former slaves who escaped from Egypt without getting wet in the Red Sea and then received the Ten Commandments after flirting with a golden calf, is one thing. But how the president treats the descendents of ancient Israel, the ones who presently occupy the Holy Land, is quite another.
For the Jews of modern Israel, the week leading up to Passover was like a revisiting of the biblical plagues. At least the Exodus was already behind them.
First, Vice President Joseph Biden scolded Israel for its decision to build 1,600 new apartments in an ultra-Orthodox section of East Jerusalem. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed with a nearly 45-minute phone call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which she did most of the talking and seemed to be threatening the prime minister with his first born. Soon thereafter Netanyahu found himself in the White House with President Obama but with no photographer in sight. The president was apparently in no mood for a Kodak moment. And when Obama didn't receive the kinds of concessions he had hoped to hear from the prime minister, he rushed off to dinner and left Netanyahu alone to order takeout.
Israel's head of state ultimately left America as if he had been banished from Egypt, passed over like some dime store diplomat.
Whether the decision to continue building in East Jerusalem is yet another line-drawing dispute between those who regard all of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel and those who say that East Jerusalem is just another Israeli settlement in a nicer neighborhood, doesn't change the fact that there is a new Pharaoh in the White House who aspires to be a deliverer, as well. Next year in Jerusalem now takes on an altogether different meaning.
With health care in the win column and the economy on the mend, President Obama is cracking the whip in trying to get the Israelis and Palestinians to liberate themselves from decades of futile negotiations, empty reprieves and olive branches that only remind both sides of the assorted grievances they cannot set aside. There's a better chance of finding the Afikomen in Gaza than there is in making peace between these two Semitic brothers.
But for Israelis used to dealing with American presidents who are pretty predictable when it comes to their policies in the Middle East, President Obama is proving himself to be a true American Sphinx--one day showing an Israeli prime minister the door, the next day opening one for Elijah.