North Africa, West Asia

The modern lesson of matza

A question asked on the radio impels the author to ponder about the absense of peace demonstrations in Israel, Netanyahu's and Abbas' visits to the White House and why matza is what it is.

Efraim Perlmutter
26 April 2014

The school where I teach is 55 kilometres away from my home. As a consequence I spend quite an amount of time listening to the car radio on the two days a week I teach. A couple of weeks ago I was listening to a talk show which invites Israelis to call in to express their opinions about various burning issues. These can range from the price of cottage cheese to the way Sara Netanyahu treats her household help. My response to their comments is mostly one of wonderment in that in Israeli democracy these people actually have the right to vote. But once in a while some remark will be made that causes me to think about something I had not thought of before. This happened during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s trip to Washington to meet with President Obama to receive an American proposal to keep the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations going. 

A caller to the radio program asked about the absence of peace demonstrations in Israel. The question, in a way, answered much more than it asked. From the time that the Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat flew to Jerusalem to address the Israeli Parliament in 1977 the Israeli peace movement organised demonstrations, ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands, in support of negotiations and concessions to the Arab states and later, after the Oslo Accords in 1993, to the Palestinians. As the caller to the talk show pointed out, the Israeli peace movement has been absent from the streets during the past few months of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. 

About a year ago my wife and I went to a gathering of peace groups at Kibbutz Erez, located just north of the Gaza Strip. One of my neighbours, a long time supporter of the left wing Meretz party, hitched a ride with us. On the way home he was quite angry with the fact that at the meeting the same old slogans and messages had been expressed. In his opinion, the level of Israeli public opinion supporting peace had been reduced by the Second Intifada and Hamas’ behaviour since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Nothing new or creative had been presented at the meeting to win back that public opinion. In short between the angry response of my neighbour and the comments on the radio it has become increasingly clear that if the Israeli peace movement is not dead, it is certainly in hibernation. 

While I was coming to grips with the meaning of all of this, Bibi arrived in Washington to meet with Obama. These are usually preceded by very public, but deniable, statements by the President or "a senior White House source", threatening Israel with dire consequences if the Israeli Prime Minister does not agree to something that America desires. In this case it was the American plan to keep the negotiations going after their expiry date at the end of April. 

Once upon a time actions were taken or statements were made "without the President's knowledge" so that later they could be denied or disavowed by the President if things didn't work out. This has been modified over the past few years so that the President can make a statement and later deny that it meant what any reasonable person might think it meant. This sort of deniability was at work as Netanyahu's plane flew to Washington and in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama left the impression that it was up to Netanyahu to make peace with the Palestinians or there would be severe negative consequences for Israel. Most Israelis interpreted this as pressure on Netanyahu while American foreign policy officialdom denied any such pressure. 

Later, public comments about the meeting reported that things had gone smoothly. Apparently the President had gotten enough agreement from the Prime Minister to claim success. Netanyahu was full of praise for Secretary of State Kerry and both Obama and Kerry made complementary statements about the Prime Minister. Exactly what had and had not been agreed to in the meeting was never officially made public but leaks and opinion pieces by administration-friendly commentators indicated that the Americans received enough agreement from Netanyahu to keep the negotiations going after the end of April. 

About two weeks later Palestinian President Abbas visited Washington for a meeting with Obama. There were no interviews by the American president prior to the meeting and, in the lead up to the meeting American officialdom continued to describe Abbas as a moderate leader in search of peace. Abbas met with Obama and then the Americans fell silent – not even the usual leaks or commentary. The only public statements about the meeting came from Abbas when he returned to Ramallah and announced with great public fanfare that he had delivered a flat 'no' to the American President's proposals.

The Israelis interpreted this to mean that the negotiations would come to an end shortly and responded by announcing a delay in the release of the fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners that had been scheduled for the end of March. Secretary of State Kerry went into action and began negotiating an agreement to keep the negotiations going. This included the release of the fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners along with another few hundred Palestinians convicted of lesser crimes and the release of Jonathan Pollard, the American convicted of spying for Israel. Abbas provided another very public ‘no’ when, before Palestinian TV cameras, he reneged on his previous commitment not to apply to any more international bodies and signed a dozen or more applications. Kerry ceased his efforts and understood that he had received another Palestinian rejection. Of course, he fell back to blaming both sides, but while this got both sides angry, at least no one had to consider whether or not the USA had mismanaged things.

In Israel, everything stopped for the Passover holiday. The schools went on vacation and businesses either closed or opened for only half days. My school went on a three week spring break, so teaching in a Bedouin school presented no scheduling clashes for me with the Jewish holiday. As the oldest person in my extended family, it was my job to lead the Seder, the festive meal on Passover eve which celebrates the Israelites being freed from slavery in Pharaoh's Egypt. The Hebrew word "Seder" is usually translated as "order" and refers to the specific order of the meal and the accompanying ceremony. The ceremony consists of a retelling of the Exodus story along with explanations of why certain customs take place. One of these customs is the substitution of matza, unleavened bread, for regular bread. Matza is a square or round flat cracker and it is eaten at Passover because when the Israelites left Egypt they were in a hurry and the bread being prepared for the journey didn't have time to rise. 

I have participated in many Passover Seders over the years but for some reason this year the whole matza story raised a question in my mind. The story of the Exodus as told on Passover, emphasises the role of God and de-emphasises the role of Moses. In fact Moses is only mentioned once, and in a rather offhand way. So this Passover I asked myself; if God was so all powerful, why weren't the Israelites able to delay their departure from Egypt by a couple of hours, to give the bread a chance to rise. But no, the story as told in the Bible and at Passover is quite clear. The Israelites were told to forget about the bread rising and leave now. So what is the lesson to be learned here? It seems to me that the matza signifies the fact that God did not provide the Israelites with perfect conditions to become free people but instead provided sufficient conditions for the Israelites to choose to be free. God doesn't make the Israelites free or a people, but sets up sufficient, though not perfect, conditions to allow the Israelites to choose to be free people. 

All of which brought me back to a reply that I had written in another context on a different forum. I had been asked, what should Abbas have told the Palestinian people when he returned from being offered a state less than what the Palestinians desired. My response was to quote from the speech that Nehru made to the Indian Constituent Assembly on the eve of Indian Independence. He began his speech with the following sentence:

"Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially".    

In today's world, for better or worse, it is the UN and the great powers which play God's biblical role. On several occasions the Palestinians have been offered a state that was "not wholly or in full measure" what they desired but was sufficient for the needs of the populace. They have always refused the offers because these offers were not everything that they wanted. I have the terrible feeling that this is happening once again. It is as if the Israelites replied when told to depart immediately, "Without leavened bread we choose to remain slaves in Egypt." 

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