iVoteIsrael: Doing Good Work for All the Wrong Reasons

Can a non-partisan organization clandestinely funded by Republican money still be considered non-partisan?

It’s hard not to like Elie Pieprz, the national director of iVoteIsrael. He has a friendly face and a wide smile. His team of dedicated young people who are working to register Americans living in Israel to vote and get their ballots properly filed are as sweet and well-intentioned as he is. He will chat enthusiastically of his dream of tripling or quadrupling the number of U.S. citizens in Israel voting in presidential and congressional elections - boosting it from the 30,000 who cast ballots in 2008, to 100,000 or higher.

But ask Pieprz who funds the organization and suddenly he gets quiet.

I asked him face-to-face who is footing the bill for his office, staff, phone lines, website, Facebook and Twitter activity, debate events, and the production of videos warning that “Muslim and Arab American mobilize their voters to the polls to oust pro-Israel Representatives from office” and  “we, American-Israelis have the power and the numbers to help elect a pro-Israel Congress and President.” Not to mention the cost of his trips from Israel to the Republican and Democratic conventions over the summer.

Utter silence.

If you check out the iVoteIsrael website, there are no names. It’s not just an absence of the names of board members or donors - even the names of the friendly staff members are absent. There is not even a trace to the name of Pieprz himself, even though he appears publicly in press appearances, on press releases, and it’s not exactly a secret that he’s running the show. As well-meaning as they seem, and as innocent as their activity appears, I have to listen to Dr. Phil when he says, “People who have nothing to hide, hide nothing.”

What exactly are they hiding? From the beginning, they have been suspected of pro-GOP partisanship. Evidence to support that theory was uncovered recently by the Sunlight Foundation, when they reported that corporate filings showed “that the group lists the same Manhattan address as that used by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation” which was widely covered in the Israeli media. Lauder is a longtime Republican political force, and the report showed that his aide and another prominent Republican strategist sit on the board of iVoteIsrael’s parent organization Americans for Jerusalem.

All along it seemed pretty clear that Pieprz was cozy with the GOP. You didn’t need to be an investigative journalist to Google Eli Pieprz and discover that he donned his ‘non-partisan’ hat very, very recently, after he moved to Israel on July 4, 2010. As recently as this press release, marking the beginning of the 2012 election campaign he was identified as ‘director of media relations’ for Republicans Abroad in Israel. And his GOP ties aren’t recent. As far back as 2006, he was quoted in the New York Times as being a ‘close friend’ of disgraced Republican superlobbyist Jack Abramoff.

But this doesn't stop him from looking you in the eye and arguing with the utmost sincerity that ever since he took the helm of iVoteIsrael, he’s done everything in his power to keep the organization non-partisan, registering all who ask for help regardless of their politics, and featuring representatives of both parties at debate events held across the country.

After hosting an event with Republicans Ari Fleischer and Matt Brooks in July, he said that the group would host a Democrat-oriented event in the near future. The Democratic event never materialized. Pieprz will tell you it’s not for lack of trying - he contends that that the Democrats were not interested in coming to court the American-Israeli vote, and he has even released Email exchanges attempting to set up such a visit to prove it. The organization also denies assertions that people who signed up for ballots with iVoteIsrael ended up on a Republican mailing list are categorically untrue. Pieprz  told the Jerusalem Post that: “The accusation that we’re acting secretly [as Republicans] is problematic and disenfranchising people.”

But not problematic enough, to remove the secrecy and simply disclose who the group’s backers are. 

And the question still stands: can a non-partisan organization clandestinely funded by Republican money with pro-GOP goals still be considered non-partisan? Even if iVoteIsrael’s sugar daddies aren’t telling the people registering to vote that they should vote Republican but are hoping that this is what will happen, is this a problem?

The truth is that it’s not the issue of whether the group is pro-GOP political orientation that really troubles me.

After living in Israel for 20 years, I have come to view the decision of every American citizen living abroad permanently whether or not to exercise one’s vote, as a very personal matter - both the decision of whether or not you choose to vote and exactly how you make your choice.

It’s not simple. As a dual citizen, you must ask yourself your vote reflect what you think is best for the U.S. or what is best for Israel? If you feel these two things conflict, whose interests do you choose at the ballot box? I’ve wrestled with these questions every four years since I moved to Israel.

iVoteIsrael’s party line leaves no room for such ambivalence. Their message: the votes of U.S. citizens in Israel are a potential tool to make life better in Israel and we’d be crazy not to use it. They view my vote - whatever it may be - as part of a pro-Israel muscle they want to flex.

In an interview back in May, with a podcaster for the Jewish Press, Pieprz made this position clear to Yishai Fleischer:

“I think you could make a strong argument that frankly for the average American Jew in Far Rockaway versus the average American Jew in Gush Etzion where I live, the President of the United States will have a more direct, a more acute impact on my day-to-day life than the American Jew in Far Rockaway, and I think that’s something that we really should be thinking of, that it’s not so much about America .... We’re not voting in the Israeli elections, we’re voting in the American elections to enhance Israel, to benefit Israel on a day-to-day basis here and also to hopefully enhance and bolster our political capital back in the States to affect decisions that affect our lives.”

Really? Should a vote by an American citizen in a U.S. presidential or congressional election be “not so much about America” and be done strictly “to enhance and benefit Israel” and his own “day to day life?” (whether or not he lives over the Green Line)

If that didn’t make me uncomfortable enough, the fact that the effort to double, triple or quadruple the number of American voters living in Israel is only the first step in his grand plan to sway presidential and congressional elections made me still queasier.   

Pieprz continued in the radio interview: “Part of what we are going to be pushing for is changing the terminology. If we get 100,000 Americans (to vote) we are going to have 10,000 or 15,000 American citizen voters living in Israel who are the constituents of a congressman from Brooklyn or the constituents of a congressman from South Florida. When you have 10,000 or 15,000 voters in a given congressional district, those become constituents: those are not people who are living in an allied country. Ten thousand or fifteen thousand is a huge neighborhood when you only need eighty or ninety thousand votes to win a congressional election. When you have 10,000-15,000 in one area, that changes things. We have a lot of friends of Israel in Congress who would love to be able to address Israel from the perspective that ‘these are our constituents, not, these are merely our allies.’”

“Allies are great - hopefully Israel and America will continue to be allies for a very long time. But if we could add the concept that we are constituents, we are active, we vote, we are informed. With 100,000 American voters in general and 10,000-15,000 in specific congressional districts, or even more in given states, I think we could have a very significant impact that goes to Israel’s advantage.”
While I appreciate their efforts to make it easier and more convenient for U.S. citizens living in Israel to exercise their individual right to vote, their endgame - turning those who have made aliya into overseas electoral foot soldiers, isn't good for either country.

I think I'd rather figure out how to cast my vote myself - without the help of Ron Lauder, or any of their other mystery funders.