Jerusalem — By all accounts they are a seemingly negligible constituency.
American Jewish voters casting ballots from thousands of miles away from homes in Israel number only in the tens of thousands. Like other expatriate communities, turnout rates are low. And only a fraction of them are registered in all-important battleground states like Ohio and Florida.
But in a closely fought election in which support for Israel has received an outsized spotlight from Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, American Jewish votes here are being sought after as never before as potential tipping point.
That said, the underutilized reservoir of presidential votes in the Jewish state seem to hold more potential for the Republican candidate than the president. That’s because, unlike the decades-long affinity of an overwhelmingly majority of American Jews for Democratic candidates — last election Obama’s support topped 75 percent — those who reside in Israel tend to be more Orthodox and more focused on the Jewish state as their top voting priority.
“Clearly, most ex-Americans who live here tend to be on the conservative side. So it is fairly clear that among Israeli Americans, Mitt Romney will be a candidate of choice,” said Shmuel Rosner, an Israeli political analyst and author of a “The Jewish Vote: Obama v. Romney,” an analysis of the tole of American Jewish voters in the current election.
“Most expats in Israel come from states in the U.S. where there is no real competition — New York, New Jersey and California. … So unless we have a situation where a couple of dozen votes will make a difference in Florida, in all other circumstance I don’t expect Israeli Americans to make a difference in the overall outcome.”
Nonetheless, the 2012 election campaign has seen some Israeli American expats launch grass-roots voter campaigns on the premise that American Jews can still have an impact on the vote despite their small numbers.
iVoteIsrael has been at the forefront of an effort to boost expat voting numbers, offering assistance to American immigrants in voter registration and in handling absentee ballots.
“The point is to see if we can get a significant amount of votes from Israel — that’s a significant statement,” said the group’s national director, Elie Pieprz, who dons a Bluetooth ear piece and has been energetically criss-crossing the country registering voters and delivering absentee ballots to the U.S. Embassy and consulates. “This is a different way to connect Israel to the U.S.”
The organization predicts that its outreach has helped the number of Israeli Americans who will vote more than double in 2012 to at least 75,000 from 30,000. That’s out of an estimated of 160,000 eligible voters residing in Israel.
Pieprz speculated that some 40 percent of eligible voters here reside in the reliably “blue state” New York metropolitan area. At the same time, he estimated that iVote Israel has delivered 7,000 and 3,000 ballots in the swing states of Florida and Ohio, respectively.
iVoteIsrael asserts that it is a nonpartisan group focused solely on turnout, but several liberal critics have highlighted Pieprz’s links to the Republican Party. Earlier this month, the Sunlight Foundation, a U.S. nonpartisan government watchdog, released a report that iVoteIsrael is a “stealthy” operation underwritten by billionaire Ronald Lauder, a leading American Jewish philanthropist and a prominent Republican donor and backer of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Still others note that iVoteIsrael ads highlight recent political tensions between Israel and the U.S. One such advertisement features Obama’s reference to Netanyahu’s demands for a “red line” for military action against Iran as “background noise”; the advertisement urges Americans in Israel to show they are not noise.
Pieprz rejects the accusations of politicization, and counters that the organization simply wants to streamline the process of voting by overseas ballot, and boost the expat vote here. He also argues that the group has helped register a record number of Democratic voters. The political messages, he said, are meant to get people’s attention and compel them to vote. They are not a partisan pitch to ensure votes for Romney.
“This is a unique way of giving Israel additional clout and leverage,” he told The Jewish Week. “We have registered more Democrats this year than the Democrats have ever registered in Israel.”
At an iVoteIsrael-sponsored election debate held this week at the Jerusalem office of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, one of a number it has hosted around the country, a casual sample of the crowd of about 50 seemed to bear out the estimates of public opinion experts. There was strong support for Romney and sparse support for the president. When the debate host asked the crowd if there were any undecided voters in the audience, only one hand was raised.
“I’m fairly decided,” said Barak Bard just moments before the debate began. The 71-year-old Jerusalem filmmaker, originally from California, said he favored Obama in 2008 but didn’t vote. This time he plans to cast a ballot, and he portrayed his dilemma between Romney and Obama in stark terms.
“For the first time in 40 years, I really have a conflict of interest — it’s between seeing my native-born land go back to the 19th century or seeing the establishment of a international [Muslim] caliphate. Those are the extremes I fear.”
Bard, whose shoulder-length gray hair makes him look like an aging hippie, said that while he considers his political orientation left of center, as a resident of Israel “I have to be right of center.”
Indeed, the views of American Jews living in Israel line up with those of Israeli natives, who prefer Romney to Obama by 57 percent to 22 percent, according to a survey for the Israel Democracy Institute.
Rachel Lipsitz, a 76-year-old retired nurse who is registered in Colorado but splits her time between residences in Jerusalem and Toronto, fits that profile. She said that Obama’s foreign policy had failed over the last four years, and she disagreed with what she saw as his message of “apologies” to Muslim nations — echoing a criticism Romney has made.
Lisa Richlen, an activist who works for human rights groups focusing on Arab Israelis and migrant workers, was one of the few supporters of Obama at the debate. “I don’t think Obama is bad for Israel,” said Richlen, who is registered to vote in the state of Washington. “The Israeli government doesn’t necessarily make the best decisions for Israel.”
She acknowledged, however, that friends active in social justice groups in Israel had been much more excited about voting in the 2008 election when Obama was first running for president.
Though the get-out-the-vote campaign is carrying out nonpartisan registration, it’s not a surprise that Republicans stand to benefit the most from boosting the American Jewish expat vote.
“It’s Republican money that says ‘let’s cast as wide a net as possible,’” said one American Israeli political consultant pollster who requested to remain anonymous. “It’s not rocket science.”
That said, representatives of the Israel chapter of Democrats Abroad praised the registration and ballot assistance efforts of iVoteIsrael, though they also acknowledge that its ads were critical of the Obama administration.
Hillel Schenker speculated that sparse support for Obama at the debate was a function of Jerusalem’s religiously conservative demographics.
“If you live in Tel Aviv or on a kibbutz, you’ll find more people voting for Obama,” he said. “If you live in Jerusalem or the settlements or Bnei Brak, you’ll find the opposite.”
Kory Bardash, a co-chair of Republicans Abroad in Israel, said the iVoteIsrael operation has exceeded his organization’s ability to drum up voters. The operation has freed this group to focus on efforts by Romney supporters here to place get-out-the vote calls to American Jews still living in their home communities in the U.S. Getting a pitch from Americans living in Israel carries extra clout back at home, he said.
“Ohio is ground zero,” he said. “Callers urge you that if Israel is an important issue, listen to what we have to say. These people are getting inundated by campaign calls. We stand out. We are calling from Jerusalem.”