Monday, April 13, 2009

A Seder, a Chanukah Party, and Iran

Last Thursday night President Obama had a Pesach Seder in the White House. I believe it is the first Seder ever to be held there – at least the first one with the President in attendance. In fact it seems from the pictures I’ve seen that at the President actually led the Seder.

I do not wish to be cynical here. I actually believe that the President meant this as a good will gesture for American Jewry and an educational experience for his children (and even himself). I fully appreciate that he seeks Jewish community approval. He is going to need it. More about that later.

I must admit that I am not as impressed by this event as I was by former President Bush's last Chanukah Party there. There are several reasons for this. First I doubt that the Pesach Seder was Kosher. I have not read anywhere that the White House kitchen was Kashered for Pesach. Second I doubt that any Orthodox Jews were there. The two most prominent Jewish members of the President’s Staff - Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod - were not there. It seemed like mostly a small affair that included Jews as well as non Jews. Put all of this together and it diminishes – at least for me - the impact of a first time Seder in the White House.

Contrast that to the annual Chanukah party established by former President George W. Bush. That was an amazing event. It showed the truly graciousness nature of the former President's freindship with the Jewish people. That surpasses any symbolism the event may have generated.

Over Shabbos I happened to read a detailed account of the last Chanukah Party held at the White House and I was amazed at how gracious the former President and First Lady were. They went the extra mile to see to it that - though it was not held on Chanukah proper - it was more than just symbolic. Much more! It should a true act of friendship by an outgoing President with nothing political to gain.

Here are some of the details. Former First Lady Laura Bush had seen a previous Chanukah party that had a mix-up with the Kosher food and the non Kosher food and insisted that that all future Chanukah parties be fully Kosher to prevent such mix-ups and so that everyone there would be comfortable with the level of Kashrus. The last party had a White House kitchen fully Kashered and was catered by a top Kosher Caterer in the Washington D.C. area - featuring a top notch cuisine.

There were Jews of all stripes there including Orthodox - Shaitel wearing - women. In fact there were far more Orthodox Jews than non Orthoox Jew proportional to their representation in the Jewish population.There were Jewish members of Congress there from both parties – including Senator Joe Lieberman. One of the rooms in the East Wing (where the ceremony was held) was given over to hold Minyanim – twice!

The President did not feel that he had to ‘lead’ he ceremonies and instead gave it to descendant’s of David ben Gurion and President Harry Truman. President Bush greeted all of his guests that evening personally. The event was preceded by a meeting between President Bush and Jewish leaders who discussed issues related to Israel and education.

And President made sure to be there hurrying home from a surprise visit to Iraq where had had just been dishonored by a shoe throwing Arab.

So forgive me if I am far more impressed by a Chanukah party by the former President than I am by a Seder led by the current one.

But - as I said, President Obama meant well and he does need to build up his political capital with his Jewish constituency. I’m not so naïve to think that Jewish support was not a significant factor in his election victory. And the President is not so naïve to think he can’t lose it. I believe that may have played into his political calculus.

That’s because he is trying something relatively new in foreign policy. He wants to re-establish what he feels the former President lost over the last 8years. Respect. Respect from Europe – and the Muslim world.

Instead of confrontation and the big stick, he wants to use diplomacy and speak softly. To that extent he has just completed his first foreign trip where he bent over backwards to apologize for American arrogance. I happen to believe there is no apology warranted. But that is another subject. What really worried me was his pandering to the Muslim world and specifically Iran. He wants to talk. So does Iran. They now welcome American overtures.

Well… what could be better than that? We can have peace in our time! With an all out push by Iran for nuclear weapons what better time to talk than now - especially when Europe has been criticizing America for failing to do that under Bush? Maybe talking will work better than military threats?

Great goal. Peace in our time. Who could disagree with that? The problem is that given the facts about Iran’s non-negotiable goals where Israel is concerned - where can the conversation go? What exactly is there to talk about? Even if Iran were to have a price for actually stopping their nuclear program it would have to include implementing in some way their goal for Israel. - which is wiping it off the map.

I don’t see how talking will change that. I am convinced that Iran’s other needs – no matter how important - are all back burner when it comes to Israel’s existence. Israel is a theological thorn in their side that must be eliminated.

Is the President so naïve that he thinks he can speak softly to Iran thereby getting them to back off from these goals? I’m afraid that the answer is that yes! I believe foreign policy advisers think they can appeal to common sense existential issues of Iranian leaders. But they do not understand the radical Islam that has been the hallmark of the Islamic revolutionary leadership – extant since the Carter era.

I know that the President will not sell out Israel. He has clearly stated that - and I believe him. He considers Israel to be an important ally. But I do think he is mistaken about Iran changing their mind about Israel. Discussions with Iran will therefore not lead to good things for the Jewish people and Israel - although I am convinced that the President thinks it will. He realizes that the loyalty of Jews who care about Israel will be put to the test as he embarks on this new foreign policy journey. We have a right to be worried about it - Seder or no Seder.