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Hey, Obama, read my seder

Until earlier this week Rabbi Arthur Waskow had five copies left of the original Freedom Seder that he wrote in 1969. Now Barack Obama has one of them. Here’s the story, from Waskow himself:

Subject: Handing Obama the Freedom Seder & a HOT Jewish question

For years I have had five copies of the original Freedom Seder that I wrote in 1969. On Wednesday morning I handed one copy to Senator Barack Obama.

The occasion was a meeting to which he had invited about 75 leaders of the Philadelphia Jewish community. I handed it to him as he entered the room. As I gave it to him, I said, “I’m not sure you know what a Freedom Seder is.” He said, “Yes, indeed.” I said, “Here’s a copy of the very first one.” He said, “That’s a wonderful gift.” I said, “Take it to the White House! ” He grinned and turned to walk up to the podium.

Then came the meeting itself –- and (lest you think this personal shtick with the Freedom Seder was all I had in mind) I got to ask the question I had been wanting to pose.

At the very beginning, before Obama appeared, two Jewish Congressmen had given full-throttle pump-up stump speeches praising Obama for not only utter devotion to the safety of Israel, but – they said – his certainty that only the Palestinians, not Israel, need to change in order to make peace.

Then Obama began by reading a statement about his relationship with Israel and with the American jewish community. It was much more nuanced than the Congressional introductions, leaving lots of space for US policy to defend Israel’s security by pressing for peace with the Palestinians.

Lots of space for new policy – but nothing to fill it. That’s what I hoped might emerge from my question.

I introduced myself as being from The Shalom Center and also as having been part of the DC delegation to the Democratic National Convention in 1968. After the death of Bobby Kennedy, we nominated for President our delegation chair, a young antiwar, antiracist minister – the first Black person ever put forward for President at a major-party convention. We opened the first door, I said, for Obama’s campaign to enter. “Absolutely!” Obama said.

Then I asked: “Hundreds of rabbis and hundreds of thousands of American Jews believe that some actions of the Israeli government – notably its settlement policy, in which it keeps promising to withdraw settlements and then doesn’t follow through – are an important problem in preventing peace – not the only problem, but an important one. What will you as President feel, think, and do about that?”

As I sat down, I saw the two Congressmen seated just before me exchange a grimace. I had rained on their super-hawk parade.

Obama answered by saying that his experience visiting Israel showed him there was much more vigorous and open debate over policy there than in the US.

He found that most Israelis understand that for the sake of peace they will have to change the geography on the West Bank a great deal, so that a viable Palestinian state can emerge. But they also know that taking this step will require a wrenching national debate, and many don’t want to enter into that debate until there seems to be a serious and effective Palestinian partner so that the wrenching debate will be worth it.

This response sidestepped the question of what as President he would do about Israeli settlement policy. It did remind the Jewish audience that he knew that there is a wide variety of Jewish opinions on this question, and made clear he understands (by invoking the voice of Israeli opinion) that the settlements are an obstacle to peace.

I should note that I also had an internal desire to raise some other question entirely, in order to make clear that Israel is not the ONLY concern of Jews and Jewish organizations. – For example, I thought about asking why Obama supports liquefied coal as a way of addressing the energy/ climate quandary.

But that was outweighed in my judgment by the importance of raising a Jewish voice about policy toward Israel other than the Israel-can-do-no-wrong attitude of the Congressmen. I wanted both Obama and the other Jewish leaders who were present to hear that – literally. And I didn’t think anyone else would dare to say it out loud in that atmosphere, even though I know some thought it.

Indeed, all the remaining questions were totally conventional in the official Jewish mode: Will-you-support-Israel-up-the wazoo-and-say-once-again-that-you-condemn-Pastor-Wright’s-statements?

But as we left afterwards, five or six people who were there (besides the usual Mt. Airy suspects, several of whom were present) told me they were glad I had raised the question. So did one member of Obama’s staff.

And I think the grimace alone between those two Congressmen was worth the question – since it reminded them that the Jewish community is NOT made up of monolithic super-hawks.

I know that some progressive Jews who support Obama would prefer not to push him toward a more progressive stance, for fear that he might then lose Jewish votes and therefore the election.

But I believe that the more any Presidential candidate gets locked in on a given issue, even from discussing “unconventional” alternatives, the more s/he will remain locked in once s/he becomes President – because there will not be an organized group supporting policy change.

I also believe there are already a great many grass-roots Jews who are fed up with the official Jewish line and want change. It’s important that Presidential candidates learn that.

Once again, as Passover and its Four Questions approach, I hope you will give the material as well as spiritual help The Shalom Center needs to keep raising the tough, hot questions to unsettle the conventional unwisdom.

Shalom, salaam, peace – Arthur

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