More than 80,000 American Jews living in Israel—out of an estimated 150,000 eligible voters—cast absentee ballots for Tuesday’s presidential election. According to an exit poll released on Thursday, which was conducted by get-out-the-vote group iVoteIsrael, 85 percent of them voted for Republican candidate Mitt Romney. That’s an astonishing figure, especially given the fact that Jewish voters in the United States are voting the opposite way—going for President Barack Obama over Romney 70 to 25 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll.
In 2008, only 30,000 ballots were cast by American-Israelis. Some are attributing this year’s dramatic jump to the pressing issues at stake for Israelis. But according to most observers, it’s mainly the result of intense get-out-the vote efforts made by groups such as Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad, which have been sponsoring town meetings, picnics, and debates throughout the country over the past nine months. The enthusiastic turnout they’ve ginned up has made some American-Israelis wonder whether they should be voting at all.
Of these groups, none has been more active and effective than iVoteIsrael, which was founded in 2011. While the group insists it is nonpartisan and is registered in the United States as a nonprofit, The Times of Israel has pointed out that National Director Elie Pieprz used to be active in the Republican Jewish Coalition and, after immigrating to Israel, in Republicans Abroad. Other staffers have similar ties to Republican groups in the United States and right-wing groups in Israel. (The group has refused to reveal its sources of funding to the media.)
For months, the organization has been using social networking, community listservs, local publications, and door-to-door canvassing to encourage voters to obtain and cast their absentee ballots. Along with Republicans Abroad, iVoteIsrael has been particularly focused on religious American-Israelis, holding rallies and public meetings to instruct voters in religious towns and settlements in the West Bank.
“It’s a good strategy,” said Chaim Waxman, Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Jewish Studies at Rutgers University, who now lives in Jerusalem. “The overwhelming majority of Jews who have come to Israel since 1967 are religious. And the religious support Romney and other conservative candidates.” The pro-Romney campaign in Israel got another boost late last month when Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, influential in religious-Zionist circles, wrote in the religious newspaper Besheva that “every American citizen [in Israel] who believes in God and his prophets should vote for Mitt Romney.”
Whatever its possible partisan stripes, if iVoteIsrael has its way, Jewish American expats in Israel—who make up between 20 percent and 25 percent of the absentee ballots cast throughout the world—will come to be recognized as a savvy constituency with real clout. “If 100,000 Americans living in Israel vote, then 10,000 or 15,000 of them are going to be in specific congressional districts or in given states. They will be constituents, not merely allies,” said Pieprz, the director. “The politicians will have to know: We are active, we vote, we are informed. I think we could have a very significant impact that goes to Israel’s advantage.”
According to Thursday’s iVoteIsrael poll, these voters could be particularly important in the swing states such as Florida, where 7,500 voted; Ohio, where 3,500 voted; and Pennsylvania, where 3,500 voted. They could also be crucial in highly contested congressional and senatorial races, such as Ohio, since overall, 62 percent voted for GOP candidates.
Yisrael Medad, a resident of the West Bank settlement of Shiloh and director of information resources at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, cast his vote in October. Medad, 66 years old, came to Israel 42 years ago from New York. “I am an American citizen residing in YESHA,” he told me, using the Hebrew acronym for Judea and Samaria. “I was born and educated in America, and I believe that America is the flagship of democracy, liberalism, and human rights. So, Americans should be supporting my right, as a Jew, to live here in the land of my ancestors. I believe that Romney upholds these values.”
Other American-Israelis feel that Romney stands for the opposite. Chair of Democrats Abroad, 71-year-old Hillel Shenkar, moved to Israel in 1963 and told me he came “to become an Israeli. Voting in American elections didn’t make much sense then, and I voted for the first time in 2004,” he said. “But now I believe that we are all connected in a way that was not possible in the past, and we are aware of the issues, domestic and foreign. And as someone committed to working for peace with the Palestinians, I am concerned about what a Romney victory could mean.”
Batya (Betsy) Kallus, a philanthropic adviser and human-rights activist who came to Israel from Massachusetts 21 years ago, similarly doesn’t see a contradiction between living in Israel and voting in the United States. “I pay taxes in America, and I feel very strongly that I am still an American. I care deeply about American domestic issues. That doesn’t negate my loyalty to Israel; in a global world, you can be involved in a society that you don’t live in.”
Not everyone agrees. Even though Batya Medad thinks Obama is “terrible for the entire free world,” unlike her husband, Romney-voter Yisrael, Batya isn’t voting. “I didn’t leave America in anger, but growing up, it was always clear to me that America was not a home for Jews, and I am first and foremost a Jew,” she said. “Americans living in America should make their decisions for their own sake, not for ours.”
Elliot Jager, contributing editor to the online publication Jewish Ideas Daily, has lived in Jerusalem for 15 years and maintains dual citizenship. “I have the right to vote, but I choose thoughtfully not to do so,” he told me. “I love the U.S. It is a beacon of tolerance and representative democracy. But I don’t think it’s morally or ethically right to vote in U.S. elections. I have obligations to the U.S. and I pay my taxes, but voting would be exploitation rather than an exercise of my rights. My physical and spiritual fate is here.”
“As a Zionist, when I came to live here, I disengaged from the U.S.” Jager continues. “It wasn’t just a life-style choice, it was a commitment. I don’t want to betray my Zionist bona fides. After all, Herzl and Jabotinsky didn’t go to their early graves so that I could exercise my right to vote in America.”
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