By Anna Hartnell, Sunday 24 April 2011 14.00 BST
Issued on Friday 15 April, ahead of this week’s Passover celebrations, Obama’s quietly radical Passover message embraced the explosive mix of religion, Middle East politics and African American history that often fired, but also threatened to derail, his presidential bid. Obama’s message to Jewish families around the world sees echoes of “that ancient instruction” to remember the Exodus out of Egypt in the “modern stories of social transformation and liberation unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa”.
Described by Glenn Beck as “a slap in the face” for Israel and Jews generally, and widely condemned by those on the left as yet more evidence of the president’s “timidity” when it comes to the Jewish state, Obama’s message is a reminder of the visionary who proved so compelling during the 2008 election campaign. As the president explains, Passover “recalls the passage of the children of Israel from bondage and repression to freedom and liberty”, inspiring “hope that those oppressed and enslaved can become free”. While insisting on “our enduring commitment to Israel’s security”, Obama’s message offers a prayer for “peace between Israel and her neighbours” and pledges to “work to alleviate the suffering, poverty, injustice, and hunger of those who are not yet free”.
“Is it a stretch,” Beck wonders, “to think that the president is referring to the Palestinians there?” Thankfully, it is not. The Obama administration‘s policies on Israel-Palestine have hardly been inspiring – the US decision in February 2011 to veto the UN resolution condemning the settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem as obstacles to peace being a particularly low point. But unlike Beck, the president’s understanding of the Exodus story is not mired in the racism that so often goes hand in hand with this particular book of the bible.
“Israel is a democracy,” Beck’s rant on Fox News continues. “It’s the closest thing to what we understand as freedom in the entire Middle East. We relate to that. But maybe more importantly we share common values.” These values seem to be tied to a Judaeo-Christian heritage that necessarily excludes “Muslim nations”. Indeed, as Beck goes on to recount the founding of America through the prism of the Exodus story – “the pilgrims settled here and believed that they were finishing the Moses story, coming to the promised land” – one wonders if his understanding of this Christian heritage isn’t also staked on the genocide of Native Americans and built on the backs of African slaves.
From the 19th century and throughout the 20th, African American activists fashioned the Exodus story as a weapon against a racist culture fixated on the idea that God’s “chosen people” must be white. Obama’s Passover message is a reminder that the current president is in part a product of black political traditions that have often viewed the US itself as the “Egypt” of slavery. Martin Luther King, who saw the Exodus as a crucial touchstone for the civil rights movement, also saw the biblical story as a bridge between African American and Jewish suffering. Yet, in the 1950s, when condemning “the Egypt of colonialism”, he was careful to distinguish Nasser’s Egypt – at that time a potent symbol of anti-colonialism – from the land of the Pharaohs. King claimed that “the struggle of Moses” captures “something of the story of every people struggling for freedom”.
While King’s steadfast support for the state of Israel meant that he never explicitly identified with the Palestinians, his support for decolonisation movements across the third world points to the flexibility of a tradition that has long identified Islam and, indeed, an often metaphorical “Egypt” – commonly, alongside Judaism and the Exodus story – as allies in the struggle against racism. This kind of complexity clearly eludes Beck, but it does not escape Obama. As a politician who was partly shaped by a tradition that customarily claimed America as both the place of “Egyptian” slavery and the promise of freedom, it makes complete sense that stories of Egyptian democracy should take centre-stage in Obama’s retelling of the Exodus drama.
It remains to be seen whether, in policy terms, Obama will live up to this vision. But these were not the words of the mere technocrat many claim is now occupying the White House.