Diplomatic Pouch / May 11, 2016
By Larry Luxner
Over plates laden with matzo-ball soup, horseradish, strawberry field salad, chicken florentine and sweet potato wedges, diplomats from 59 countries and regional entities gathered at Washington’s Adas Israel Congregation to celebrate Passover 2016 on April 12 — which corresponds to the fifth of Nissan 5776 in the Hebrew calendar.
In truth, the eight-day observance didn’t really begin until the 15th of Nissan. But for these curious ambassadors, deputy chiefs of mission and other non-Jewish dignitaries, that 10-day chronological discrepancy was just a glitch compared to the greater mitzvah of experiencing one of Judaism’s most widely celebrated, yet misunderstood, holidays.
In that spirit, the 24th Annual Ambassadors’ Seder, sponsored by the Washington-based American Jewish Committee, attracted diplomats from huge countries like China (population 1.35 billion), and tiny ones like Dominica (population 72,000).
Some of these nations, including Argentina and Russia, are home to hundreds of thousands of Jews, while others, like predominantly Anglican Barbados and mainly Buddhist Myanmar, barely have enough Jews to make a minyan. And a few entities represented that night — including Micronesia, Mongolia, newly independent South Sudan, the Kurdish Regional Government and the Vatican — are devoid of Jews entirely.
Regardless of their country of origin, top AJC officials gave all their guests a warm and kosher welcome, made more meaningful thanks to a musical introduction of Israeli songs by Makela, a local a capella group.
“It’s been gratifying to see this seder establish itself as a Washington institution,” said Jason Isaacson, the organization’s associate executive director for policy, as well as its director of government and international affairs.
Isaacson, noting that the Ambassadors’ Seder has been around since 1996, said it’s gratifying for another reason: he met his future wife at one such seder five years ago.
“My colleagues and I have many opportunities to interact with the diplomatic community,” he told his 250 or so guests. “In your capitals, we come to you with our concerns and appeals, and together we seek solutions to common problems. So tonight as we break matzo — not bread — together, we thank you for that dialogue.”
Passover 2016, warned the speaker, comes “at a time of peril and uncertainty.”
“Political upheaval and violence across the globe — and human rights atrocities, especially in recent months — have riveted us all. It would be easy to yield to despondency in the face of unspeakable horrors, but we all must choose paths as we take lessons from the Passover narrative.”
Isaacson added: “We remain committed to fighting all forms of anti-semitism, extremism and hate. And despite recent challenges, we remain firmly committed to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We know there are brave leaders in Israel and throughout the Arab world who have reached across that perilous divide.”
Notably, six Muslim countries sent delegates to the seder, which, after all, recalls the exodus of Jewish slaves from Egypt. Even more notably, three of them, all Arab — Bahrain, Morocco and Tunisia — don’t even have diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.
Yet the one ambassador who should have been at Adas Israel that night, Israel’s Ron Dermer, wasn’t, for unexplained reasons. Nor was his deputy, Reuven Azar. Instead, Israel was represented by political counselor Itai Bardov and Mati Engel, the embassy’s director of national initiatives.
The seder itself, conducted eloquently by the conservative synagogue’s senior rabbi, Gil Steinlauf, included the timeless traditions of drinking four cups of wine; dipping parsley into salt water as a reminder of slavery; making a matzo “sandwich” of bitter herbs and sweet charoset; and spilling 10 drops of wine to symbolize the 10 plagues inflicted upon the evil Egyptians.
But in a new twist to those plagues of old — blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, blight, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the slaying of the first-born — guests recited the “10 plagues of our time” according to an accompanying haggadah, or prayer book: famine, poverty, war, addiction, epidemics, bigotry, terrorism, inequality, apathy and fear.
If the seder had ended right there, dayyenu — it would have been enough for this enthusiastic, sometimes confused crowd.
Yet AJC’s newfangled haggadah, adopted for the age of Twitter and cyber warfare, included inspirational reflections from such diverse voices as Czech President Václav Havel, promiment American intellectual, Michael Walzer, Jewish historian and rabbi Stanley Chyet, Franco-Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and Francis Bok, a former Sudanese slave who escaped in 1999.
Before the night was over, desserts of mango, lemon and raspberry sorbet appeared at every table, and participants also heard from two of their own: Ambassadors Juan Carlos Pinzón of Colombia and Elena Poptodorova of Bulgaria.
“Before coming to Washington, I had a different job. I used to be minister of defense, and I can tell you that in our darkest hour, many countries, but especially two, came to support us: the United States and Israel,” he said. “And because of that support, we can now talk about this connection. As Catholics, we see the Exodus as part of our Christian Jewish heritage. In the end, we all have the same ideas and values, and we share the same sentiments.”
Pinzón, building on those “modern plagues” like poverty, war, terrorism and inequality, also noted how far Colombia has come from the early 1990s, when his country was synonymous with cocaine cartels and uncontrolled bloodshed.
“Today, we have the lowest homicide rate in 35 years,” he said. “There isn’t one single Colombian city among the 10 most violent cities in Latin America, and our economy has recovered. In the past five years, we have outperformed the region, foreign investment has come back, we have created jobs and we’ve cut inequality by 30 percent.”
Poptodovora, who’s attended at least eight such pre-Passover seders over the years, even keeps a collection of the haggadot she’s saved from each annual dinner. But this was her last; the ambassador will soon return to Sofia after having served in Washington from 2002 to 2008, and again from 2010 until the present.
“This story which is so beautifully described here — about the Biblical exodus, the yearning for salvation and freedom, and the 40-year-long painful path through the desert — is a moving, telling symbol for every nation, but especially of my own,” she said. “Bulgaria has known all of this: slavery, liberation and freedom. My country has been under different forms of foreign oppression — not just political but also the suppression of our own faith. Maybe this is why we Bulgarians relate so wholeheartedly to the story of the Jewish people.”
Poptodovora reminded her audience that during World War II, the Nazis rounded up Bulgaria’s 50,000 Jews for deportation, but very few of them were actually sent to the death camps. “We rescued practically the entire Jewish population of Bulgaria,” she said.
Participants interrupted the ambassador’s speech with applause when she declared that, regardless of what their enemies might think, Jews have the right to live in peace — and to defend themselves.
“Of course, we all want a two-state solution, but I also believe the Israeli people are entitled to security and safety,” the Balkan diplomat concluded. “This is a matter of conviction.”