J Street was founded in 2007 as a nonprofit focusing on advocating for American policies that could lead to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While that focus remains constant, the group has been lending its voice to several domestic issues as well since the 2016 American election.
“We have since the last election somewhat broadened the number of issues that we have spoken out on and acted on, issues that go to the heart of the Jewish American experience and what we perceive to be core values,” said Alan Elsner, special advisor to J Street’s president Jeremy Ben Ami. “So, we’ve been talking about immigration and the tax on immigrants, Islamophobia and obviously now anti-Semitism.”
Weighing in on these domestic issues is not a major shift from J Street’s longtime mission, stressed Elsner, speaking by phone from Washington, D.C. prior to traveling to Pittsburgh to address local J Street supporters at their annual brunch, held at Rodef Shalom Congregation on Aug. 27.
“We’re not talking about climate change, or women’s health issues, or education,” Elsner said. “The issues we are talking about do have a direct connection to the Jewish American experience and the core Jewish and American values.”
Because its emphasis historically has been on Israel, “We are trying to be humble when we get involved in these issues, recognizing they are not at the heart of the J Street mission,” Elsner explained. “We are joining other coalitions and lending our support and expertise where we think we can help.”
The need for J Street “as a voice of conscience in the community” has grown since the election, according to Elsner, “precisely because some of the very central and important and traditionally powerful organizations have failed to step up to the plate, and I say that with sadness. There has been a kind of gap that J Street is filling.”
While 75 percent of American Jews did not vote for Trump, “some of our most important organizations are carrying on business as usual, as though there wasn’t a president that behaves as he behaves and has adopted the policies that he’s adopted and has said the things that he has said and who has invited anti-Semites into his White House and who has used anti-Semitic dog whistles both during the campaign and since the campaign,” Elsner charged.
Elsner said he finds it “sad that the collective voice of the American Jewish community has not been out there standing up for core Jewish and American values in the way I hoped it would, and that the message has been muddled.”
Elsner cited President Donald Trump’s response to the incident in Charlottesville as “a problem,” and called out the mainstream Jewish community for failing to condemn Trump for that response.
“An organization that does not speak about the president’s response [to Charlottesville] is missing the point,” Elsner said.
While neo-Nazis “have been around forever and every so often they do something,” the situation in Charlottesville differs precisely because of Trump’s words pointing the blame for the attack on “both sides,” according to Elsner.
“It’s easy to denounce horrific acts carried out by deranged individuals, whether they be Muslim or Neo-Nazi or whatever,” he said. “But it’s an entirely different issue when the president of the United States comes out and gives them legitimacy. This is unprecedented in our nation’s history. And that’s what so many people have failed to address.
“Our community as a whole is facing one of those decisive, defining moments,” he continued. “What do we stand for? When we say, ‘never again,’ do we mean it?”
Elsner postulated that some Jewish organizations may be reticent to criticize the president because such criticism could “conflict with other interests, with other positions, or with our political allegiance.”
Many mainstream Jewish organizations have, however, called out Trump on what they perceive as ethical failings. Just last week — following the Chronicle’s interview with Elsner — leaders of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements sent a joint letter to the president, explaining why they would not be participating in the president’s traditional High Holiday phone call.
“The president’s words have given succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia,” they wrote. “Responsibility for the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, including the death of Heather Heyer, does not lie with many sides but with one side: the Nazis, alt-right and white supremacists who brought their hate to a peaceful community. They must be roundly condemned at all levels.”
Morevoer, AIPAC, which rarely issues statements unrelated to Israel or the Middle East, implicitly called out Trump for his Charlottesville’s response:
“AIPAC shares the outrage and deep concern of our fellow Americans about the inexcusable violence and sickening displays of racism and anti-Semitism in Charlottesville this weekend,” the statement read. “The vile hatred expressed by neo-Nazis, the KKK and white supremacists must be categorically and unambiguously rejected. We urge all elected officials to reject moral equivalence between those who promote hate and those who oppose it. There must be no quarter for bigotry in our country.”
J Street will be focusing its efforts in the coming year on shoring up support for maintaining the Iran nuclear agreement and on endorsing candidates in the 2018 election, according to Elsner.
“We are looking at 2018 as a very important election and a chance to strike a real blow against everything this administration stands for,” Elsner said. “And it’s not just the moral decrepitude and the moral worthlessness of this president himself, but also the policies they have been enacting on the whole, issues that go against the policies we believe in as Jews, as Americans and as progressives.”
Still, J Street will continue to endorse candidates who support a two-state solution, Elsner said.
“The criteria for endorsing candidates remains the same,” he said, “and we would be very happy to endorse Republicans as well as Democrats that share that vision, but only a very few Republicans have requested our endorsement, and right now there are not any.”
Elsner noted the “natural fit that the kind of people we endorse are also people who find themselves in opposition on domestic issues to Trump. We will not be applying any domestic litmus test to the candidates that we endorse, but the fit is a natural fit anyway.”
As for the likelihood of achieving a two-state solution in the Middle East during a Trump administration, Elsner was not optimistic, but at the same time credited Trump’s team for seeming to pursue it.
“I actually think that the administration through its envoy Jason Greenblatt has been working hard and struggling mightily to get a negotiation off the ground, but they are running into the same problem the previous administration ran into which is that neither leader seems remotely interested in pursuing a negotiation at this point, but we’ll have to see.
“The latest we’ve seen coming out of the region seems like they’ve hit a roadblock. Paradoxically, since a two-state solution is our main issue, we haven’t seen the administration engage in the same destructive policies that it seems to be flirting with on the Iran issue.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at