In U.S. Vote, Israeli Americans Are From Mars, Jewish Americans Are From Venus

Senior Haaretz analyst Chemi Shalev writes that telling American Jews that they should be guided by the pro-Romney vote of Americans living in Israel is the height of chutzpah.

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that 85 percent of Americans living in Israel did indeed vote for Republican candidate Mitt Romney, and only 15 percent for Barack Obama. Even if that figure, derived from a disputed exit poll, is somewhat inflated, it can’t be far off the mark. It stands to reason that Americans living in Israel would prefer Romney over Obama, just like most Israelis would.

They are, after all, one-issue voters. Having made the laudable decision to come to Israel, they are no longer concerned with internal American issues. Their only focus is on their government’s problematic relations with, and antagonistic posture towards, the current president of the United States. And whatever one thinks of Obama’s policies toward Israel, there is no doubt that he has a PR problem with Israelis, at the very least.

But Jewish Republican advocates have been touting these results as something more than just a very particular point of view from a far-flung province in which American expatriates happen to live. The point is being made that Jewish Americans should follow the lead of their former countrymen. Abandon your long-held liberal values and Democratic allegiance, Jewish Americans are being told, because 100,000 or so American olim seem to believe that Romney is better for Israel than Obama. Somehow, the inference is, they know better than you what’s in your best interests.  

But Americans living in Israel are, by their very definition, a breed apart.  They are more ideological, more Zionist, more dedicated. They are the ones who decided to leave America behind and to make Israel their home, for which they should be commended. But having done so, they have fundamentally detached themselves from the reality of the community they left behind. They no longer have a clue what preoccupies American Jews, and why. Many of them have lived in Israel for so long, they have probably forgotten what it is that makes American Jews vote for Democrats in the first place.

They are now a part of the majority in Israel, not of the minority in America, and thus oceans apart, not only geographically but psychologically as well.  The Jewish majority in Israel is ambivalent, at best, about the demands of its main minority, Israeli Arabs, for absolute civil equality. American Jews, on the other hand, have always been attuned to the rights of minorities - as a matter of belief, of history, of justice and of self-preservation as well. They may not be as close to African Americans as they used to be, but many Jews are still more sympathetic to their plight than most other Americans, and when African Americans line up 95%-5% against a Republican candidate, American Jews hear their message, loud and clear.

Although American immigrants to Israel come in all shapes and sizes, they are, as a general rule, more Orthodox, more conservative and much more hawkish than the American Jewish community they left behind. A large number of American-born Israelis live in settlements in the territories, differentiating them not only from the American Jewish community, but from most Israelis as well.  They fit the profile, in fact, of the minority of American Jews who have been voting for Republicans anyway.  And while they may not admit it, much of their animosity toward Obama derives not from his alleged hostility to Israel itself, but from his opposition to the settlements in which they live and to the one-Jewish-state solution of which they dream. Their low opinion of Obama, in fact, isn’t all that different from their disdain for fellow Israelis who insist on believing in peace with Palestinians.

For most Americans living in Israel, the issue of religion and state is irrelevant. True, many American-born Israelis are at the forefront of the struggle for religious pluralism and for state recognition of Reform and Conservative movements, but many others are, quite simply, Orthodox: They don’t believe in separation of religion and state and are quite happy, naturally, to live in a country in which the Orthodox rule. Many of them, in fact, see eye to eye with conservative Christians on the corrosive influence of decadent liberal secularism.  Perhaps that is why they are always perplexed by the discomfort expressed by many American Jews toward devout Evangelicals, who, besides professing their undying adoration for Israel, are also the ones pressing the leaders of the Republican Party to formulate policy with Christ in their hearts.

Americans living in Israel, unsurprisingly, couldn’t care less about equal pay for American women, about a woman’s right to choose, about climate change, about the rights of immigrants, about universal health care, about quality public education, about support for the elderly and compassion for the underprivileged, about the host of other social issues that are dear to the hearts of American Jews and that have defined the American Jewish experience for over a century. Most citizens of foreign countries don’t care about these issues, either, which is quite understandable; but they don’t tell Americans how to vote, either.

There are layers of chutzpah here. The first is the arrogance of telling American Jews that their own lives and their own interests and their own beliefs are insignificant and should be cast aside because some Jews – far from all – don’t like Obama’s attitude towards Israel.

American Jews are supposed to somehow convince themselves that it is merely a coincidence that the Democratic Party has ten or twenty times the number of Israel-loving Jews in its top echelons and to feel just as much at home with Republicans, who have just one. They are expected to turn a blind eye to the growing influence of the radical right on the Republican Party, to its tolerance for the kind of primitive anti-intellectualism that is so alien to what American Jewry stands for. And they are supposed to disregard the Jewish early-warning system, honed and refined for so many hundreds of years, that sends alarm bells ringing in their kishkes whenever some Republican fundamentalists – a minority, for sure, but not an insignificant one – cross their radar screens.

A case can be made that Romney would be better for Israel than Obama, though one might urge caution in assessing a candidate whose positions on so many cardinal issues have such little bearing on what he’s said before. American Jews can make up their own mind if the differences between Obama and Romney justify the kind of quantum political leap that Republicans are urging them to make - and they can do so without needing any guidance from their brethren from another planet, who’ve made aliyah.

After all it is they – and not Americans living in Israel – who will have to live with the consequences of their decision.

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev