By Hunter Stuart
Published Oct. 2016 in The Jerusalem Report magazine
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Yael Kaner grew up in a left-leaning home in Massachusetts during the 1960s and 1970s.
“I was brought up Democratic. That was my family’s tradition,” says Kaner, who is 57 and moved to Israel from Baltimore in 2011.
But as Kaner became more religious, she “took a hard right.” It was in the 1990s, during the Clinton presidency, that she became a devoted Republican.
“I think it was the day that Bimbo No. 5 came up. I went to the phone book, looked up Republican, and wrote checks to every organization I could find!” says Kaner, who lives in Ma’aleh Adumim, a mega-settlement next to Jerusalem.
Kaner has voted Republican in every US presidential election since, and plans to vote for the GOP nominee, Donald Trump, in November. However, her loathing of the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, seems stronger than her affinity for Trump.
“Her entire being offends me. She has terrible judgment! Just look what happened in Benghazi. I wouldn’t stand next to her in a lightning storm,” she says.
Among American citizens living in Israel, Kaner is, perhaps, not unique ‒ a majority of the 200,000 or so eligible US voters in Israel, analysts say, support the Republican Party over the Democratic Party.
In the US, Jews vote overwhelmingly Democrat; in Israel not so much.
“The thing about the American Jewish community in Israel is that it’s kind of the reverse of the Jewish community in America,” Dahlia Scheindlin, a professional pollster and political consultant, tells The Jerusalem Report. A poll conducted by iVoteIsrael, an allegedly non-partisan group that registers people in Israel to vote in US elections, found that in 2012, 85% percent of absentee voters cast ballots for the Republican nominee Mitt Romney and only 14% percent for Barack Obama.
There are a number of reasons for American-Israelis’ preference for the GOP. First and foremost is religion.
“Level of religious observance is the biggest predictor of Left-Right attitudes in Israel,” says Scheindlin.
Mitchell Barak, another American-Israeli political consultant, agrees: “If people are religious, they’re more likely to vote Republican because they want those conservative, wholesome Southern family values,” he says.
Then there’s foreign policy, specifically vis-a-vis Israel.
“Americans come to Israel equally split between Democrats and the Republicans,” says Abe Katsman, the legal counsel for Republicans Overseas Israel, a non-profit group that functions as an arm of the Republican Party. But once they get there, he says, many gravitate to the Republican Party. “I guess when you have a front row seat to American Middle East policy, things look a bit different than they did before.”
Republicans Overseas Israel has been hosting events and election drives to persuade more American-Israelis to cast ballots for Trump. The group organized a Hebrew-language campaign this year, which it has not done for previous elections, as a way of targeting people who identify more as Israeli than American, even though they have US citizenship.
“I think there’s a feeling, especially over, let’s say the last eight years, that who the president is matters a great deal both from a US perspective and from an Israeli perspective,” Katsman says, adding that the predominantly Hebrew-speaking demographic is “ripe for receiving that kind of message.”
US politicians from congressmen to presidential candidates put time and resources into their Israel campaigns not just to get the votes but also for public-relations purposes. According to Barak, Trump’s campaign in Israel may be geared more for US consumption than for local American-Israelis.
“It seems to be that they are trying to make Trump more ‘kosher’ by showing he has support and a ground campaign here,” Barak says. “It also seems to try and make up for his shallow foreign policy experience and lack of any real policy or advisors by saying, ‘Look, Americans living in Israel support me, so I must be okay.’”
Eitan Charnoff, iVoteIsrael’s national director, however, says the Israeli vote can influence the outcome of a presidential election, contrary to the popular belief that absentee voting doesn’t really matter.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about voting from abroad,” Charnoff tells The Report. “In reality, there is a significant enough voter block here from the States, that we can actually sway the results of elections,” pointing out that in 2000, George W. Bush beat Al Gore by just 537 votes in Florida.
In 2012, Israelis cast 7,500 ballots in Florida and 3,500 in Ohio, both crucial “swing states” that could go red or blue based on a few hundred votes. Such figures further demonstrate the influence Americans in Israel can have if they vote in the absentee ballot.
Which they likely will.
American citizens of Israel are exceptionally enthusiastic about voting in US elections, much more so than Americans living in other countries such as Canada, Mexico or the United Kingdom.
“In the past two elections, 2012 and 2008, more Americans voted absentee from Israel than from any other country in the world,” Charnoff says.
On the flip side, America, itself, is disproportionately fixated on what Israelis think about US elections.
“In a sense, we’ve got a megaphone in Israel,” Katsman says. “People want to know what things looks like from over here.”
Trump, a Manhattan real estate mogul and reality TV star, has been inconsistent on his positions with regard to US intervention in the Middle East. On numerous occasions, he has taken an isolationist stance, arguing that the US has “become a dumping ground” for the world’s problems.
But he’s also argued for massive interventions abroad, the likes of which are controversial even among people who are typically in favor of such operations. For example, during a debate in March, Trump suggested that the US should send a ground invasion of 20,000-30,000 troops into Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIS. During the second presidential debate on October 9, he repeated his intention to “knock the hell out of ISIS,” and claimed the group had been created because of the “vacuum” left by Obama and Clinton.
On Israel, specifically, Trump has alarmed conservatives by saying he’d be “neutral” on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which, as the Jewish newspaper The Forward points out, places him “to the left of every American president since [Dwight] Eisenhower, including [Jimmy] Carter and Obama.” But Trump backtracked on that statement not long after making it, and has since declared his unswerving support for the Jewish state, telling the newspaper Israel Hayom in May that he was “extremely strongly in favor of Israel” and that he will “make sure” that Israel will be “in very good shape forever.”
In interviews and conversations with a dozen American citizens who live in Israel, it was clear many like Trump’s position on Israel and the Middle East more than Clinton’s.
“He seems to have a better idea of what it’s all about,” says David Weissman, 35, a freelance writer and US army veteran who was stationed in Afghanistan before moving to Israel in 2013. “He’s not trying to force a two-state solution like his opponent.”
While Clinton often says she is devoted to keeping America’s relationship with Israel close ‒ “The United States and Israel must be closer than ever, stronger than ever and more determined than ever to prevail against our common adversaries and to advance our shared values,” she said during a speech to the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC in March ‒ she also periodically speaks about the need to give Palestinians in the West Bank a state of their own.
To many right-wing Jewish-Israelis, giving land and greater autonomy to West Bank Palestinians is seen as an existential threat.
“I perceive it as threat to my ability to live,” says Kaner, who lives in the E1 Zone, a small but contentious area east of the Green Line, from Ma’aleh Adumim to East Jerusalem, that the Israeli government wants to develop. The US government and others have said such development would threaten the viability of a future Palestinian state.
“From my backyard, you can see one of the proposed borders. I look at an Arab village from my window. It’s called Eizariya, which is where a lot of the shaheeds [“martyrs”] come from,” Kaner says. “It’s very scary.”
Kaner is more comfortable with the Republican Party’s national platform ‒ which mentions Israel 19 times and says the party is opposed to “any measures intended to impose an agreement or to dictate borders [with the Palestinians]” ‒ than she is with the Democratic one, which mentions Israel only nine times and proclaims that “Palestinians should be free to govern themselves in their own viable state.”
There are no reliable statistics for how American-Israelis vote since absentee ballots make exit polling impossible.
In the past, says Sheldon Schorer, the former spokesman for Democrats Abroad Israel, the vote in Israel “pretty much paralleled” the vote in the US, with 72-78% of Jewish citizens voting Democrat. But that changed 10 or 15 years ago when larger numbers of religiously-motivated American Jews began moving to Israel, many to the administered territories. These new olim, he says, were less comfortable with the Democrats’ support for a two-state solution largely because they themselves lived on settlements. Their influx into Israel over the past two decades may have signaled a trend toward the GOP among American Jews living in Israel, Schorer posits.
Still, Schorer claims that, even today, with so many religious-conservative American Zionists living here, the majority of American Jews in Israel support the Democratic Party.
He wasn’t able to provide statistics to back up his claim, but he strongly questioned the legitimacy of iVoteIsrael’s 2012 survey ‒ the one that found 85% support among American-Israelis for Romney and just 14% for Obama, and which is one of the only pieces of hard evidence pointing to the supposed preponderance of Republicans in the Jewish state.
“They used a totally skewed sample,” Schorer claims. “They asked students at Yeshiva University who were known to be Republicans who they voted for. If you come to my backyard, I’ll give you 100% in favor of the Democrats, and that poll will be useless, too!”
iVoteIsrael disputes this, saying the survey had a large sample size of 1,700 people and was conducted at multiple events and through email and phone conversations.
Regardless, the poll is simply a snapshot of one election and, therefore, is not necessarily reflective of the Republican-Democrat breakdown among the 300,000-400,000 American citizens who have made Israel their home, Charnoff says.
Dislike of Obama in Israel is so high (a 2015 WIN/Gallup survey of 65 countries found only four with a more negative view) that, in 2012, Americans who live in Israel may have cast their ballots for the Republican Party more to illustrate their loathing of Obama than their affinity for Romney, a private equity executive who served as a governor of Massachusetts from 2003-2007.
Because Trump is such an unusual candidate, Scheindlin and Charnoff say it’s not so easy to assume the majority of American Jews in Israel will vote for him. “This election is going to be far less predictable,” says Charnoff.
Romney was a paragon of predictability, which is one of three qualities Israelis like to see in their leaders, says Barak, the political consultant. They also savor stability and experience. “We elected a 74-year-old overweight widower [Ariel Sharon] to be prime minister for the second time,” he said. “No country does that!”
Because he is prone to outbursts and changing his position on crucial issues, Trump is not always seen as “predictable” or “stable.”
“All my Republican friends are scared of Trump ‒ everyone is,” says Arielle Adler, a 27-year-old non-profit worker in Jerusalem who moved to Israel after graduating from college and will vote for Clinton. “He doesn’t think before he speaks. He says whatever comes to mind. It’s terrifying.”
People who move to Israel from the US typically aren’t fleeing anything, not economic pressure, antisemitism or hardship, says Scheindlin, meaning they come mostly for ideological reasons, either on the Right or Left.
“They come because they are committed and passionate about Israel, each from his or her own direction,” she says.
Scheindlin says the data she’s seen over the years suggests Americans in Israel are majority-Republican, but she says that majority might not be as large as people tend to think. “There’s a perception that Americans are disproportionately represented in the settlements, you know, this stereotype of the kind of radical West Bank settler, speaking Hebrew with a thick American accent. But there’s also an over-representation of Americans in left-leaning circles.”
Adler supports giving more land and autonomy to Palestinians in the West Bank.
“We have to think about them, as well. Any solution other than a two-state solution or a three-state solution is scary for a Jew, whether you look at it in terms of demographics or in terms of terror,” she says, adding that Clinton would be a better mediator for peace negotiations than Trump would be.
Other Americans in Israel who are voting express distaste for Trump’s persona, particularly his past.
“Through stiffing building contractors and not paying federal taxes, it just seems that he is an asshole,” says David Ross, 34, an entrepreneur in Jerusalem who also says he’ll vote for Clinton. “And now his candidacy is allowing all the other little assholes in the country to get a little bolder, to the point where there was a ‘White Lives Matter’ protest outside the NAACP office in Houston recently.”
Ross, who says he moved to Israel three years ago for ideological reasons questions the popular notion that Trump will be “a better friend to Israel.”
“George [W.] Bush was assumed to be a friend because of his Christian allegiances and overtures toward Israel, but he’s the one who brought us war in Iraq, which ultimately set the Middle East into a tailspin from which it’s still trying to recover,” says Ross. “So, I don’t put too much stock into ‘better friend’ or not.”
Some Jewish Americans in Israel are concerned about Trump’s rhetoric toward minorities such as a proposed a blanket ban on Muslims entering the US; his characterization of Mexican immigrants as murderers, drug dealers and rapists; and mocking of people with disabilities.
“I think Israelis ‒ and Jews to a certain extent ‒ need to be careful who they take as friends,” says Gabriel Avner, a 31-year-old editor who made aliya from Maryland in 2002 and lives in Ramat Gan. “I don’t think US presidential candidates who are anti-Muslim are a good thing, especially someone trying to work for peaceful resolution here. I want someone who will have Israel’s back, but a good friend knows to nudge you and tell you when you’re making a mistake.”
Trump also has been portrayed by some as anti-Semitic because of direct or retweeted comments saying Jews are good with money, a stereotype long used by antisemites to stir up hatred against Jewish communities around the world. Adding to this perception is the support Trump gets from white supremacist groups in the US whose attitudes toward Jews also are problematic.
Katsman, however, says he sees no evidence of a seed of antisemitism in Trump. “Quite the contrary. This is someone whose counsel [Jason Greenblatt], who sits next to him in his office for the last 20 years, is a kippa-wearing Zionist Orthodox Jew. The Jewish connections are wide and widely-known,” he says.
When asked about Trump’s refusal to condemn some of the extremist right-wing figures in America who have publicly shown support for him, such as former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, Katsman says Trump has “no love for unsavory white supremacist groups” but doesn’t necessarily have an obligation to disavow them.
“They may see in him something they like, but that doesn’t mean it’s part of a legitimate political platform,” he says.
“For example, let’s say that by getting control of immigration, and even enforcing the existing immigration laws that are on the books, that would have the effect of reducing the flow of populations that the white supremacist groups don’t like. Well, is that a reason to not enforce the laws that are on the books? Because the white supremacists also get ancillary benefits from this? No, we are doing it for national security reasons, and I don’t care what the white supremacists think. If they’re happy, they’re sad, that’s not even part of the equation.”
Whether or not Trump’s proposed policies are borne of bigotry or a legitimate desire to get a handle on illegal immigration, some American-Israelis feel the direction he wants to take America is inconsistent with the nation’s values.
“I think Trump has the wrong vision for America,” said Avner. “America has a role to play in the world, of being an open society, and Trump and his message reject that vision. This is an important time for Americans to say what they are, what values they believe in.”