By Amitabh Pal on November 14, 2013

Come spring, it'll be do or die for Israel-Palestine negotiations, says the spokesperson of a major Jewish-American group, and he and his colleagues will try to make sure that peace is finally achieved.

Alan Elsner, the vice president of communications for J Street (which describes itself as "the political home of pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans"), is optimistic about the prospects for an Israel-Palestine settlement. He is confident that the Obama Administration is going to unveil a detailed peace plan early next year, and then it is up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"He must make a decision about whether he wants to make the big leap or whether he wishes to go down in history books as an inconsequential figure who didn't achieve anything," says Elsner.

This is where J Street comes in. Elsner says the role of the organization, founded in 2008 to counter the rightwing Israeli lobby, is to give a negotiated settlement breathing room in Congress and to forestall a backlash there.

"Our job is to create a political space so that the howls of indignation among a well-organized minority are countered by the voices of the majority," says Elsner. "To those politicians who will be in favor of peace, we will be telling them, 'We have your back.'"

Elsner, a veteran journalist who was with Reuters for many years, was in Madison this week to speak at the University of Wisconsin and help set up a campus chapter of his organization. We met over lunch to discuss the work his group is doing.

J Street was founded to reflect the shift in opinion among Jewish Americans, especially members of the younger generation who are "in favor of a two-state solution, opposes settlements, want the occupation to end, and are worried about Israel's future," Elsner says. "This was not reflected in the establishment community, which had a conspiracy of silence when it came to critiquing Israel. Anyone who dared express criticism was a traitor to the cause."

Since its genesis a mere five years ago, J Street has established itself in cities all over the country. It has 180,000 registered supporters, Elsner says, with a base that is comprised of many small donors, instead of a few big ones. It now has the second-largest Jewish-American political action committee. It endorses candidates for Congress, and, Elsner says that seventy of the seventy-one candidates it's endorsed emerged victorious (including Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin). It also has a presence on dozens of campuses, an ongoing endeavor that brought Elsner to Madison.

Elsner claims a number of victories, small and large, for J Street in Washington. Last December, for instance, he says, AIPAC got a stealth resolution introduced in Congress around Christmas time to get the PLO diplomatic mission in Washington, D.C., expelled. J Street counter mobilized, and the other side had to scuttle the effort.

J Street was the subject of some vilification initially, Elsner says, but has become more accepted as time has goes on. The Israeli government now receives delegations from the group. And the seal of approval from approximately 700 rabbis and other Jewish religious figures who are on the organization's rabbinic cabinet lends it religious cover.

Elsner does disagree with some dearly held notions of progressives when it comes to Israel.

"BDS doesn't work," Elsner says, referring to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign intended to punish Israel for the occupation. "We prefer a negotiated settlement, not coercion. Besides, how much effect will such a campaign have against a rich and powerful economy such as Israel's?"

Elsner is also skeptical of a one-state solution that would have the Israelis and the Palestinians coexisting in single nation.

"The Israelis don't want it; the Palestinians don't want it," says Elsner "There'll be a civil war if they're forced to live together. How has that worked in Syria and Iraq?"

He is not discouraged by the failure so far of negotiations for a two-state solution.

"I'm not naïve, but I do not believe in the inevitability of history," Elsner says. "The past history of individuals doesn't determine their future course."

Photo: Flickr user David Berkowitz, creative commons licensed.

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A plea to United States citizens to work for peace

An Indian journalist globally renowned as an advocate for the poor, Palagummi Sainath detailed the detrimental...

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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