Obama's Passover Message Misses the Message of Passover

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.

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 Passover, 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.