Iran deal, Israeli tensions put focus on White House Seder
© Pete Souza

The White House’s annual Passover Seder will take on an added significance this year, with President Obama presiding over the most tense U.S.-Israeli relations in decades.

Obama, the first president to hold a Seder at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., has spoken publicly about how the ritual speaks to his personal beliefs, and the White House has billed the event as non-political.

But the Passover celebration, which commemorates the ancient Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, comes one day after the U.S. and Iran announced the framework of a deal to roll back Tehran's nuclear program. Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have repeatedly clashed over the ongoing negotiations, as well as the establishment of a Palestinian state.

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Netanyahu strongly opposes the proposed pact, saying it paves the way for nuclear weapons for an Iranian regime that has threatened to wipe the Jewish state off the map. Obama believes that diplomatic engagement is the best way to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear arms.

The two leaders have openly feuded since the Israeli prime minister was reelected last month, days after he denounced the Iran deal in his controversial address to Congress, which the White House said broke diplomatic protocol.

But don't expect politics to dominate the Seder-table conversation.

"It is probably the least political dinner the president attends all year," said Arun Chaudhary, a former White House videographer, who helped assemble the first Seder. "I think we're all very proud of that in the way it feels familial."

That's not to say politics are completely off limits. Last year, Obama gave Eric Lesser, another organizer of the first Seder, some advice for his campaign for Massachusetts state Senate, Chaudhary said. 

The White House has not released its guest list for this year, but members of Congress, major Jewish leaders and Israeli officials have not been included in Obama's prior Passover celebrations.

Instead, the 20 or so guests who usually attend the Seder in the 190-year-old Old Family Dining Room include first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaObama jokes Michelle’s book is causing ‘strain in our marriage’ Michelle Obama's memoir is 2018's fastest-selling book at Barnes & Noble Valerie Jarrett says Michelle Obama won't run for public office: 'It will never happen' MORE, daughters Malia and Sasha, friends of the family, members of the president’s staff and their families. The group has largely remained the same every year.

Attendees are a mix of Jews and non-Jews, including senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Susan Sher, the former chief of staff to the first lady.

Obama has said his differences with Netanyahu are not personal. And at past dinners, the White House has used a Seder plate gifted in 2013 by Sarah Netanyahu, his wife.

Chaudhary said conversation at the Seder table typically revolves around spiritual and moral issues related to the holiday, and not the news of the day.

"The actual celebration of the holiday is of the higher political order," he said.

Obama’s Seder tradition began in 2008, when he dropped by an impromptu dinner during his hard-fought Democratic presidential primary against then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.). The meal was arranged by three young Jewish aides in the basement of a Sheraton hotel in Harrisburg, Pa.

“It reminds everyone there of how life was like right before the election and right before we moved to Washington,” said Herbie Ziskend, an organizer of the original Seder who worked as an advance staffer on Obama’s 2008 campaign.

The Seder itself is not all that different from those held by Jewish families all around the country.

The participants use the Maxwell House Haggadah, found in many traditional homes, to tell the story of Passover. Chicken soup with matzoh balls, beef brisket and potato kugel is served. A piece of matzoh, known as the afikomen, is hidden in the house for children to find.

But the White House dinner includes unique aspects, too. Eric Whitaker, a personal friend of the Obamas who has attended each Seder since 2008, introduced the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation to the proceedings.

“For the president and everyone there, it’s a time for everyone to take a pause and reflect on these issues that transcend time,” said Ziskend, a former staffer to Vice President Biden who now works at the  Washington, D.C.-based investment firm Revolution LLC. “These are universal themes that resonate not only with Jewish-Americans but for African-Americans and everyone: freedom and self-improvement.”

During a visit to Israel in 2013, Obama said he brought the Seder tradition to the White House so his daughters could experience the Exodus story.

“It’s a story of centuries of slavery, and years of wandering in the desert; a story of perseverance amidst persecution, and faith in God and the Torah. It’s a story about finding freedom in your own land,” the president said.

"It’s a part of the three great religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,” he added. “And it’s a story that’s inspired communities across the globe, including me and my fellow Americans.”