Why I Joined J Street

December 13, 2012 3:07 pm 3 comments

A recent announcement that I had joined J Street as Vice President of Communications raised some eyebrows among some of my friends in the Jewish community. After all, as recently as two months ago, I was a member of senior management at The Israel Project, a very different organization.

Interestingly, the response from my many friends and family members in Israel was quite different. Almost without exception, they were fully supportive of my move and encouraged me to take the new opportunity. By contrast, here at home I was attacked from the right (by an unnamed source) as a “Bibi hater” and from the left as a closet Likudnik.

Israel has been a central passion – arguably the central passion – of my life since I was a teenager. My parents, especially my father, were and are fervent Zionists who made aliyah almost 30 years ago, although my father, now aged 94, is thoroughly disgusted at the latest generation of Israeli political leaders.

At age 19, I dropped my university studies to volunteer on a kibbutz during the Yom Kippur War. Four years later, on graduating, I was a professional organizer of the Union of Jewish Students in Britain for a year and fought leftist attempts to ban Israeli speakers from campuses.

I made aliyah myself in 1977 and served a year in the IDF in 1982. I met and married my wife in Israel and our first son was born in Jerusalem. But after eight years, my journalistic career with Reuters took us away from Israel.

As a reporter covering the State Department, I remained deeply immersed in the issue and throughout the years, never missing a single year regardless of intifadas, I continued to visit Israel every few months and to take my family. In short, I am not and have never been an armchair Zionist.

So in 2010 when the opportunity arose to join The Israel Project and give something back to Israel, I eagerly grasped it. I’m proud of the work I did there but when the organization began going in a new direction this fall, it was time to move on.

I had reluctantly reached the conclusion that my efforts to improve Israel’s image in the media were never going to make a real difference because they were beside the point. Of course, Israel should have its viewpoints fairly and accurately reflected in the media and there is value in efforts to ensure that this happens. And of course there are many occasions when Israel is the victim of biased reporting, misinformed or uninformed reporting or outright slander and distortion.

But none of these facts, regrettable though they are, constitute the main threat to Israel’s future as a democratic state with a Jewish majority. Even if all the reporters in the world miraculously rid themselves of prejudice and every report filed about Israel was scrupulously accurate and balanced, or even biased in favor of Israel, the central threat to the country’s future would remain.

The truth of the matter is that much of the reporting that many American Jews find distressing is generated by actions of the Israeli government itself. Take the recent decisions of the Netanyahu government to retaliate against the vote at the United Nations General Assembly to upgrade “Palestine” from a non-voting entity to a non-voting state.

Netanyahu’s response was to announce the construction of thousands of new housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and to develop a particularly sensitive region east of Jerusalem known as E1 for Jewish settlement. In recent years, Israel has limited itself largely to expanding existing settlement blocs rather than breaking ground on new developments.

Even good and faithful friends of Israel like Australia expressed deep consternation about the decision and urged Netanyahu to reconsider. But the Israeli leader, trying to stay in control of a party lurching alarmingly to the right in the hurly-burly of an election campaign, vowed to defy the entire world if necessary.

The fact is, Israel’s own actions, little by little, day by day, apartment block by apartment block, new road by new road, sliver of land by sliver of land, are destroying the only path the country has that offers the slightest hope of a peaceful future and of preserving a Jewish democratic majority. That path is of course the two-state solution – an independent Israel and Palestine living in peace side by side. Ironically, Netanyahu himself is committed to the two-state solution, at least on paper, though his actions suggest otherwise.

I remember when there were only a few thousand settlers on the West Bank and I even wrote what seemed a shocking story in the early 1980s about plans to increase that population to 100,000. Now there are half a million.

Time and space for the two-state solution are running out but the Israeli government seems either oblivious or indifferent – and some of its coalition partners are working hard against the government’s own stated policy. American Jews, who don’t have a vote in deciding Israel’s future but should at least have a voice, have been largely silent.

What alternatives does Israel have if the two-state solution dies? If it keeps the West Bank, it would either have to grant the Palestinians living there the right to vote, in which case Israel’s Jewish majority may disappear, or deny them that right, in which case Israel as a democratic state disappears. Or it could try to persuade them to accept limited autonomy in certain enclaves. History has given us a word for that – “Bantustans” – and neither the Palestinians nor the international community would stand for it.

For those who don’t remember, the Bantustans were so-called black homelands set aside for the indigenous population in South Africa during the apartheid era which became notorious for their poverty, corruption and squalor.

Such a scenario would breed more extremism, more Intifadas, more international isolation for Israel, more sanctions – in short, a future of conflict without end. I think of my four nephews, each of whom has served faithfully in the IDF (one is currently serving) and their future children and grandchildren, each one fighting their own wars, generation after generation. This is not what they want or what I want for them.

All of which brings me to J Street, an organization that sees clearly the crucial importance of the two-state solution for Israel’s democracy and long-term security.

J Street performs several crucial functions. It provides a forum for American Jews, especially young people, who love and want to support Israel without having to endorse Netanyahu, the settlements or the status quo on the West Bank. Without J Street, many of these young people would simply walk away.

Second, J Street tries to foster and encourage a much-needed conversation within our community about Israel. Strangely, though we Jews talk and disagree about almost everything – and have done so since time immemorial – in our community it has become almost impossible to discuss Israel and its policies rationally without being labeled as a traitor, or worse a self-hating Jew – as the response to my appointment has demonstrated once again.

Third, J Street is working to persuade the administration to launch a new and serious effort to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians. As Israel’s truest friend, the best thing the United States could do is help the Israelis and the Palestinians achieve what both sides need so badly. And J Street also provides backing for members of Congress who support Israel but would like the ability to politely disagree when they see a government acting against its own best interests. Congress does Israel no favors when it blindly supports whatever the government in Jerusalem does.

Finally, J Street allows Israelis in the peace camp to know that they are not alone, that there are many, many American Jews and non-Jews who stand with them.

I am proud to be one of them.

Alan Elsner recently became Vice President for Communications at J Street.

3 Comments

  • The self serving rationalizations offered here rest on two flawed assumptions. The first is, that the Jewish majority will “disappear.” This derives from seriously compromised demographic studies which include double counting and other egregious methodological errors – detailed here:
    http://www.meforum.org/2124/the-politics-of-palestinian-demography

    The second is the delusion that Palestinians have a desire to live in peace with a Jewish state. The recent statement (to cheering crowds)in Gaza by Khaled Mash’al
    http://www.memritv.org/clip/en/3671.htm
    Which is a re-assertion of Hamas’ very explicit charter

    http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/hamas.asp

    And Abbas’ history – detailed here:
    http://www.discoverthenetworks.org/individualProfile.asp?indid=801

    makes sustaining such a delusion problematic.

    If one wishes to pretend that these explicitly expressed sentiments are merely the rhetoric of an unrepresentative “leadership” one must ignore (or spin into meaninglessness) the results of an intensive face to face public opinion survey conducted in Arabic by American pollster Stanley Greenberg in conjunction with Palestinian Center for Public Opinion which found:

    Only one in three Palestinians (34 percent) accepts two states for two peoples as the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    Sixty-six percent said the Palestinians’ real goal should be to start with a two-state solution but then move to it all being one Palestinian state.

    92% said that Jerusalem should be the capital of Palestine, 1% said the capital of Israel, 3% the capital of both, and 4% a neutral international city.

    72% backed denying the thousands of years of Jewish history in Jerusalem, 62% supported kidnapping IDF soldiers and holding them hostage, and 53% were in favor or teaching songs about hating Jews in Palestinian schools.

    When given a quote from the Hamas Charter about the need for battalions from the Arab and Islamic world to defeat the Jews, 80% agreed. Seventy-three percent agreed with a quote from the charter (and a hadith, or tradition ascribed to the prophet Muhammad) about the need to kill Jews hiding behind stones and trees.

    What Alan Elsner is manifesting is “projection”. The notion that just because one strongly desires a particular outcome based on sincerely held convictions; that one’s interlocutor is similarly motivated and seeks the same goal.

    We see the the mirror of this phenomenon in the accusations, by Arabs, that Israel seeks sovereignty from the Nile to the Euphrates, of the genocidal/apartheid intent of Israeli policies or the desire of Israelis to (sic)Judaize Jerusalem and expunge evidence of the Arab/Muslim connection to the city.

    These are the oft repeated and explicitly stated goals of the Arabs. For theologically mandated reasons they seek sovereignty over the entire planet, by their words and actions they seek to make Judenrein all of Israel (except for those who will accept the second class status of dhimmitude) and who claim that “Al-Quds” is their third holiest shrine, at which it is however, acceptable to launch barely aimable ballistic missiles.

    To paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan: “Kiss the golem, if you will; yet it is a golem still.”

    I must also take issue with E Pluribus Beagle who wrote “So you’re basically a traitorous paid shill of Iran then. Ok thanks for clearing that up.”
    Elsner is delusional, not malign. His opinions proceed from laudable sentiments regarding justice, tikkun olam etc. Unfortunately these have led him to ignore reality. It is an occasion for mourning, not anger, when a progressive – for progressive reasons – makes common cause with theocrats and ethnic triumphalists.

    E benAbuya – I awoke one morning to discover that I had been transformed into a large revolting apostate among Orthodox Liberals.

  • Bravo for your true courage. On it’s current trajectory, Israel will cease to exist. Whether you’re an extremist Zionist or Anti-semite, the facts cannot be ignored. The sane voices have to come to the forefront, or crazies like E Pluribus Beagle and Bibi will eat their young and destroy Israel.

  • E Pluribus Beagle

    So you’re basically a traitorous paid shill of Iran then. Ok thanks for clearing that up.

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