Give Israeli migrants absentee voting rights, Jerusalem institute recommends

Israel should give Israeli migrants absentee voting rights for their first four years abroad and finance schools for the children of Israelis in the Diaspora, a new policy paper recommends.

The policy paper released this week by the Jewish People Policy Institute based in Jerusalem argues that Israelis residing abroad, especially in North America, can be a strategic asset to Israel, and help facilitate a process of demographic and identity regeneration within Diaspora Jewry as well as serve as a bridge between Israel and Jewish communities abroad.

The paper, titled “Helping Yordim Remain Jewish: A new policy for the treatment of Israeli migrants abroad,” was authored by JPPI fellow Yogev Karasenty. It calls on Israeli decision makers to give Israeli migrants absentee voting rights for their first four years abroad to strengthen ties with Israel, and to finance the establishment of kindergartens and schools for children of Israelis in the Diaspora, as well as to finance special study tracks for the children of Israeli migrants studying in Jewish schools.

Yordim, which literally means those who descend, is the Hebrew term used to describe Israelis who leave for the Diaspora.

The paper pointed out that the second-generation Israeli migrant community is exposed to an accelerated assimilation process and that Israeli parents abroad face difficulties in instilling an “Israeli” identity in the next generation.

JPPI President Avinoam Bar-Yosef said that “Israel should make a real effort to embrace the children of Yordim, who have moved away from Israel as a result of the negative attitude of the Israeli state and public opinion toward their parents, in order to strengthen their Jewish identity and long-term ties to Israel. This approach must be accompanied by economic investment and a shift of strategy, especially in an era when distances are decreasing, allowing many people to live their lives in more than one country.”

Israelis catch U.S. election fever

TEL AVIV (JTA) — Just beyond the beer taps at a Tel Aviv bar with an American flag hanging out front, a makeshift polling station draws dozens of Americans in Israel casting their vote for the U.S. election, 6,000 miles away.

“This is more fun than voting in the Bronx,” said one voter, sealing his ballot in an envelope Sunday night at the Dancing Camel, the Tel Aviv bar where the Vote From Israel organization set up its absentee voting operation in the city.

Israelis — including the American citizens among them, as many as half of whom hail from swing states — have been closely following the election campaign across the ocean.

Hourly radio news bulletins routinely report the latest U.S. polls, Israeli media have dispatched reporters to cover the campaign trail and have been rebroadcasting Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impersonations on “Saturday Night Live.” Some Israelis have even gotten involved on the grassroots level. One group produced a YouTube video called Israelis for Obama that has been seen some by some 400,000 viewers.

All the while, Israelis have been following the disproportionate mention of their small country in the campaign with a mix of amusement and validation (in the vice presidential debate alone, Israel got 17 references).

The visits to Israel this summer by both Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain lent further credence to the Israeli joke that Israel is America’s 51st state. During their visits, both candidates made the perfunctory pledges of support for Israel. The gestures may have been meant for Jewish voters back home, but they also put at ease Israelis not too familiar with either candidate.

Israelis “feel very much involved in this election and have deep opinions about it,” said Abraham Diskin, a Hebrew University political scientist.

The author of a new book on the history of the U.S. presidency titled “The Presidents,” Diskin said he was surprised by the high level of demand in Israel for his new book, which includes chapters on Obama and McCain and features the two on its cover.

With the U.S. election just days away, poll results released this week by the Rabin Center for Israel Studies found that 46.4 percent of Israelis would vote for McCain and 34 percent for Obama, with 18.6 undecided. Nearly half of the 500 Israelis surveyed, or 48.6 percent, said McCain would be better for Israel; 31.5 percent said Obama would be better.

The results are very different from U.S. polls showing Obama in the lead, including among American Jews. They reflect the wariness some Israelis, including Americans living here, have about Obama’s untested relationship with Israel. With the growing threat of a nuclear Iran high on Israelis’ minds, some Israelis see McCain as the safer choice, due to his foreign policy record and experience and more hawkish line on national security.

Others support Obama’s message of change and are eager to see a U.S. president with a less unilateral approach to foreign affairs than President Bush and whose actions will boost America’s standing in the world, which is seen to benefit Israel. They also support the Democratic candidate’s positions on abortion rights, health care policy and the economy.

Among registered Democrats in Israel, Obama lost in the primaries to Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.). who beat Obama 54 to 45 percent. Clinton polled better in Israel than both Obama and McCain; her popularity here is thought to be due to her familiarity to Israelis and to the popularity of her husband in Israel.

With its large community of expatriate Americans — Israel is thought to have the fifth-largest U.S. expatriate community in the world, after Canada, Britain, Germany and Mexico — Israel is seeing its share of political activity around the U.S. election.

One New Jersey native now living in Israel, Noah Hertz-Bunzl, 22, founded a group called Americans in Israel for Obama, which coordinated efforts with the Obama campaign for two voter registration events. The group also has been calling Jews in swing states to convince them to vote Obama.

“The basic point we make is not to be scared off by Obama and to counter the misconception that Israelis are opposed to him,” Hertz-Bunzl said.

Kory Bardash, co-chairman of Republicans Abroad Israel, said that he expects most American voters in Israel to side with McCain, noting that in 2004 approximately 70 percent of Israel’s Americans voted for Bush.

“People who vote in Israel are typically either religious or people who care about Israel,” Bardash said. “It’s foreign policy and the economy that matter, and traditional liberal issues do not play so much of a role here.”

McCain’s support among Orthodox Jews is stronger than among liberal ones.

Elliott Nahmias, 37, originally from California, said he’s voting McCain in large part because of foreign policy considerations.

Jennifer Shapiro, 27, who grew up in New Jersey, said she’s become obsessed with the elections, even from the distance of Israel.

“I don’t do anything but read and watch news about the election,” she said.

Shapiro said she is supporting Obama because she favors his international outlook and his positions on domestic issues, including health care and the economy.

When it comes to Israel, she says the Jewish state will know how to take care of itself no matter who is president: “It will do what it needs to do to protect itself,” she said.

O.C. Election Set for Rosh Hashanah

Jewish groups are expressing anger that government officials, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, have scheduled a special election in Orange County to fall on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days of the year for Jews.

The Oct. 4 election is to fill the congressional seat left vacant when Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) accepted the chair of the federal Securities and Exchange Commission.

Area Jewish leaders estimate that more than half of Orange County’s 80,000 to 100,000 Jews live in Cox’s former 48th District, which includes Irvine, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach, among other cities. Cox has held the seat since 1988.

Holding the election during the Jewish New Year will disenfranchise scores of Jewish voters who would otherwise go to the polls, said Shalom Elcott, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Orange County. Elcott, who co-authored an Aug. 16 letter to Schwarzenegger urging him to reschedule, said O.C. Jews had been marginalized.

“Somebody made a conscious decision that the Jewish vote doesn’t matter,” he said.

On Oct. 4, many Jews will be in synagogue with loved ones in “contemplative prayer and not in voting booths,” said Rabbi Marc Dworkin, director of the American Jewish Committee, Orange County chapter. He called the timing of the election for the 48th District “outrageous, more than insensitive.”

Officials characterize such criticisms as unfair, contending that they were simply hamstrung by limited scheduling options. Local officials also pledged to pursue remedies, such as distributing more absentee ballots.

In an interview Thursday, Orange County Registrar of Voters Steve Rodermund said he had been aware that the primary would fall on Rosh Hashanah, and that he discussed the matter with his staff as well as with staffers for the Orange County Board of Supervisors

Rodermund said he advocated the chosen date as the best alternative available, given the need to fill the empty seat and the constraints posed by the holiday season and the statewide special election on Nov. 8. The Oct. 4 election for Cox’s seat is a primary, where voters choose who will represent their political parties. The next and final step, the general election, is scheduled for Dec. 6.

Schwarzenegger ultimately is responsible for setting election dates, but his office said he merely deferred to the wishes of local officials. When asked whether Schwarzenegger could have chosen a different date or whether he now regretted scheduling the primary on Rosh Hashanah, a spokeswoman said she had no comment. Once set, the election date cannot be changed, she added.

To the extent that the governor’s office has not sufficiently responded to local Jewish groups to explain its position, the Schwarzenegger braintrust has made a political miscalculation, said Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton.

“This can turn a relatively small snafu into a much bigger one,” said Sonenshein, who has recently written articles about how Schwarzenegger’s transformation into an “AM talk radio Republican” has eroded his support in the Jewish community. “One of the great things about saying, ‘We screwed up,’ is that people are quite understanding of screw-ups, especially if you’re trying to fix them,” Sonenshein said.

Larry Greenfield, California director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said it was “unfortunate” the primary fell on Rosh Hashanah. He plans to send e-mails to his organization’s estimated 500 Orange County members telling them that his group will work with the governor’s office and registrar of voters to ensure high Jewish participation.

That’s the stated goal of the Orange County Registrar Rodermund, too. Ideas under consideration include setting up some polling places where Jews could cast their ballots early, said Rodermund, who added that he looked forward working closely with area Jewish groups.

“We were really constrained by what the law allows,” Rodermund said. “Our objective now is to work with the Jewish community to ensure that we minimize this impact to the maximum extent possible so they can exercise their right to vote.”

Although disappointed about what happened, Joyce Greenspan, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, Orange County/Long Beach, said she would work to mitigate the damage. The ADL, she said, plans to assist in the distribution of thousands of absentee ballots in synagogues and at other Jewish agencies.