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December 13, 2012 3:07 pm

Why I Joined J Street

avatar by Alan Elsner

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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.

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