Slavery to freedom: Obama’s story is ours

The Exodus motif sits at the heart of the American project

By Dr Winston Pickett, January 22, 2009

As an American and as a Jew, I have many different reactions to Tuesday’s events in Washington. But they all, somehow, come together.

One of the core components of the Obama phenomenon is the way that America, and indeed much of the world, is caught up in the story of his personal ascent to the presidency. For me, Obama’s journey is compelling precisely because of the way it touches on a deeper narrative of redemption — not a specific, Christological redemption, but one that hearkens back to an earlier Biblical recension.

This is the redemption of pidyon — literally, a “repayment” — of debts owed or pledges made. For Americans of all stripes, the new president’s African-American story embodies the fulfilment of a promise deferred — yet one ceaselessly woven into every expression of the American project. And for Jewish Americans, no stranger to such ideas, this has meant that Obama’s journey is our journey, too.

Historically, one of the main reasons the Jews were able to find such a welcome environment in America — or rather, how they were able to work that environment — was the Exodus motif: the idea of “from slavery to freedom” that so resonates with the American spirit.

For the Founding Fathers, who knew their Old Testament well, the artistic representation of Moses and the Children of Israel crossing the Red Sea almost became the iconic Great Seal of the United States.

Indeed, American Puritans, like other groups escaping religious persecution in Europe, so strongly identified with this narrative that they viewed their emigration from England as a re-enactment of the Exodus. They were the new Israelites, entering into a new covenant with God in a new Promised Land. Even Thanksgiving, first celebrated in 1621, a year after the Mayflower landed, was first conceived as a parallel to Yom Kippur, replete with fasting, introspection and prayer.

These values run deep. Even today, the legacy of America’s non state-sponsored approach to religion has meant that Americans still find such biblical motifs underpinning their values.

Tuesday’s events, after all, were about the journey from slavery to freedom; about liberation and reaching the highest executive office of the land — themes which are hard-wired into the American aspirational impulse. And let’s not forget that colonial Jews, when they reached America’s shores, saw it not as the goldene medine of later Yiddish-speaking generations but as the “American Israel”.

And when it came to freedom from oppression, this was the same country that inspired Moses Sexias to write to George Washington lauding America’s commitment to grant “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” — a phrase later adopted by Washington himself and constituting as invaluable an antidote to antisemitism as any today.

These ideas are part of the American psyche, adopted by African-Americans and permeating the imagery of Martin Luther King Jr’s speeches.

Americans embrace the idea of redemption. And Tuesday’s ceremony was truly redemptive. It was the coming of age for the real children of real slaves. But it was also a powerful moment for all people — not least because the idea of freedom from oppression (the liberation which we celebrate every Pesach) is hard-wired in the collective consciousness and unlocked when a person of Obama’s stature, oratory, intelligence and character springs from our midst to give voice to that yearning.

I see this as a biblical moment. A Hebrew Biblical moment. We stand at the edge of what the Hagaddah calls z’man cheiruteinu (time of liberation). It may exist for only a moment. Tomorrow’s work may bring us crashing back to reality, but we would be churlish not to celebrate it while it lasts — and make the world a little better in its wake.

Dr Winston Pickett is Director of the European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism

Last updated: 10:49am, January 22 2009