Writing last month in New Jersey Jewish News, Rabbi Daniel Cohen of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange celebrated the political diversity of his synagogue. “I choose to actively support AIPAC,” he said, referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “Others in my congregation choose to support J Street. I not only accept that fact but I value it.”
On Friday, March 28, the synagogue will host a talk by the vice president for communications of J Street, the left-of-center “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization that often finds itself at odds with AIPAC policies.
Alan Elsner, who formerly worked as a White House and State Department correspondent for Reuters News Agency, joined J Street in 2012. The London native, who made aliya in 1997, previously worked at The Israel Project, a pro-Israel organization that J Street once described as “dangerous and counterproductive.” (It was “not a good fit” was all Elsner would say on the subject, citing a confidentiality agreement he signed when he left the organization.)
He discussed his ideas with NJ Jewish News in a March 13 phone interview.
NJJN: Is J Street having more of an impact in the mainstream Jewish community?
Elsner: I think J Street has expanded the conversation in a very constructive way and is reaching out to quite a large constituency which did not feel as if it had a home in other Jewish organizations.
NJJN: Is there a dividing line in constituencies between AIPAC and J Street?
Elsner: That is not the way to look at it. These are two organizations with two separate missions with some overlap and some differences. [AIPAC’S] mission is to build a strong U.S.-Israel relationship; they have nothing but my respect. Our mission is to build support around the notion that Israel’s future as a democratic state very much depends on achieving a peace agreement with the Palestinians. It is like comparing basketball to baseball. They are played on different fields with different size balls. They are different games.
NJJN: Does it make a difference to the people in J Street who is in the leadership of the Israeli government?
Elsner: Obviously it does. We would like to see the Israeli government do whatever it can to achieve a peace agreement. We recognize it is a two-way street; it takes two to tango. But whenever we see the Israeli government make things more difficult and push us further away from peace, we are going to call them out.
NJJN: Do you have any faith in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a peacemaker?
Elsner: I think every Israeli is interested in achieving peace, but Netanyahu is a mystery, even to people who have known him for many years and have spent a lot of time with him.
NJJN: Do you believe that Israel and the Palestinians are running out of time to reach an agreement?
Elsner: If we miss this opportunity and the occupation continues and the settlements continue to grow, at some point the two-state solution may be lost. The longer we wait the more painful it will be for everyone.
NJJN: How do you factor Hamas into the equation? How should Israel deal with them?
Elsner: I don’t think you should expect Israel, or anyone, to negotiate with people who actively seek your destruction and refuse to acknowledge your existence. But if we are able to reach a deal to establish a Palestinian state on the West Bank, an enormous amount of international investment would flow into that state, and the Palestinians’ economy I think would really move forward. At that point the people of Gaza would see that they had been left behind and would pressure Hamas to do whatever was necessary to be part of that success.
NJJN: How can they reconcile Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to do so?
Elsner: This has become elevated to the number one issue. It would make sense for the two states to recognize the nature of each other. The formulation has to be something like “Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people and home of all its citizens with full rights for all.” You have to acknowledge that 25 percent of Israel is not Jewish.
NJJN: Do you believe Secretary of State John Kerry is an effective negotiator?
Elsner: It is like saying “The pitcher is doing a good job” midway through the seventh inning. Ask me when we get to the bottom of the ninth.