Alan Elsner, special adviser to the president of J Street, delivered what he termed a “general talk” at Rodef Shalom Congregation on Monday evening, April 11.
The objective is “just to bring people up to speed on how we’re viewing events both here in the U.S. and in Israel this year,” he said.
More precisely, Elsner’s almost hour-long talk reflected its title, “Confronting hatred and intolerance in the U.S. and Israel: How defeating Trumpism is necessary to advancing peace.”
For much of Monday night, Elsner entertained the 25 attendees comfortably seated in Rodef Shalom’s Levy Hall with political anecdotes, biblical references and literary citations.
“This is going to be a wide-ranging and rambling talk,” Elsner said.
Beginning with a knock of Leon Uris’ “Exodus” — a 1958 historical novel about the establishment of the State of Israel. Elsner likened the work to a “love affair of a teenage girl with Justin Bieber.”
“It’s not a mature love affair,” he said. “I feel like many people in the American community are still stuck in it. We like to be proud of Israel, and sometimes it is too painful to talk about the country’s problems, but we must discuss those issues. We can’t talk only about the lovely things in Israel.”
What Elsner called the attendees’ attention to is that the “moral crisis” that Israel faces is largely due to “the occupation.”
“It’s easy to be ethical when you have no power,” he said. “The true test is when you have power over people.”
Such activity has generated a polarizing communal rift, added Elsner. “Our inability to discuss Israel has been immensely damaging. We have to get back to talking in a civil and realistic way.”
Yet, contrasting such dovish rhetoric were pilloried barbs against Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
Elsner called Kirk a “war monger,” and said that although “J Street does not endorse presidential candidates, we have some thoughts on Trump and Cruz in light of Jewish ethics. There is a kind of thuggery, an aura of violence that surrounds [Trump’s] campaign. [He is] playing on people’s insecurities.”
Such behavior is similar to that of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Elsner claimed.
“Trump is scapegoating, and that’s what Netanyahu is doing in Israel.”
“I am concerned about Israel’s future,” Elsner told listeners before again wedding peaceful and assailant calls. “The best thing we can do is to have a conversation. Not only talk, but listen. We must create safe spaces for these discussions in our community. We must also defeat thuggism and Trumpism in America.”
Following Elsner’s remarks, Ronnie Cook Zuhlke praised the speaker. Recalling a prayer she had previously read, Zuhlke said, “We should live by our hopes, not by our fears.”
“I think it’s a perspective of how we handle difficult situations,” she added. “Cruz and Trump exemplify fear, and both Democratic candidates exemplify hope. I think Netanyanu is also grounded in fear, fear of Arabs, of existential threat. I think it’s a similar narrative.”
In recent weeks, Elsner has addressed diverse crowds across the country.
“Last week, I was in L.A. and spoke at different forums, including a talk I gave to 27 rabbis at Hebrew Union College.”
When asked to comment on Monday evening’s turnout, he said, “Very often you get people who challenge you from the right.”
“There was some diversity,” she said, “but not much. I would have liked a wider range of opinion.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.