For Israel advocate, openhearted messages work best

When it comes to pro-Israel advocacy, Alan Elsner has no interest in preaching to the choir. He prefers to reach those who either don’t like or don’t care about the Jewish state.

Based in the nation’s capital, Elsner serves as senior director of communications and research for the Israel Project, a nonprofit that helps journalists better understand the Israeli perspective. His specialty is crafting and delivering effective pro-Israel messages.

He will share some of his knowledge about Israel advocacy during speaking engagements at Palo Alto’s Congregation Kol Emeth and Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

Alan Elsner

“The messages that work are optimistic and openhearted,” Elsner said. “In general, the messages [people] respond to are of shared values and democracy, just as America is a democracy. The other is that Israel sincerely strives for peace with the Palestinians, a peace that will allow the two countries to live as good neighbors.”

Elsner well understands Israel’s positions when it comes to sensitive geopolitics. A native of Australia, he made aliyah as a young man, living in Israel for eight years and serving in the army.

He later launched what turned into a 33-year career in journalism, starting with the Jerusalem Post. He served as Reuters’ first Jerusalem correspondent, later working for the agency in London, Stockholm and Washington, D.C.

During his career as a reporter, he covered big stories, such as the genocide in Rwanda, and later wrote a book about the deteriorating state of America’s prisons. He had a feel for injustice, which explains his affinity for Israel, which he believes gets an unfairly bad rap in world opinion.

“One of the problems Israel has is that it is defined as the Goliath with the Palestinians playing the role of David,” he says. “I think we need to widen the focus to take in the entire Middle East, with more than 20 Arab countries and Iran surrounding Israel. It’s a very tough neighborhood.”

It’s one thing to disseminate through mass media a more balanced view of Middle East politics. As for what ordinary Israel-loving citizens can do to help improve the image of the Jewish state, Elsner says sometimes it’s just a matter of talking to neighbors.

The key is narrowcasting the message to the target audience.

Says Elsner, “If I were to go into an evangelical church, I can say ‘God gave us the land, it’s written in the Bible, the Jewish people have a special role in history.’ They would respond to that. I can go to [Veterans of Foreign Wars], talk about how Israel is a loyal ally and military asset, and they would respond to that. If I go to a college debate and say those things, nobody will listen to me.”

However, Elsner says many people are indeed listening. He says support for Israel among Americans has ticked up significantly this year, a phenomenon he attributes to the uncertainties surrounding the upheaval across the Arab world.

“Israel is seen as a stable presence in the Middle East,” Elsner says. “People appreciate that. We and others have put out the message that the rights the Egyptians and others are fighting for are rights that Arabs in Israel have enjoyed for decades.”

Alan Elsner will speak 7 p.m. Thursday, May 19, at Congregation Kol Emeth, 4175 Manuela Ave., Palo Alto. Information: (650) 948-7498. He will also speak 9:30 a.m. May 22 at Congregation Kol Shofar, 215 Blackfield Drive, Tiburon. Information: (415) 388-1818.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.