Is the Fifty-first State Red or Blue?

Jews in America are traditionally staunch supporters of the Democrats - in the last three presidential elections, only about 20 to 30 percent of the Jewish vote went to the Republican candidate.

In the absence of rock-solid statistics, politics sometimes becomes the springboard for speculation. Kory Bardash, the chairman of Republicans Abroad Israel, for instance, predicts that the 200,000 Americans living in Israel will overwhelmingly favor his party's candidate, John McCain in the U.S. presidential elections this November. If you ask the Israeli Democrats, however, two out of three Israeli Americans will vote for McCain's opponent, Barack Obama, who visited Israel this week.

Jews in America are traditionally staunch supporters of the Democrats - in the last three presidential elections, only about 20 to 30 percent of the Jewish vote went to the Republican candidate. Sheldon Schorer, a spokesman for Democrats Abroad Israel, is convinced that the political preferences of Americans in Israel are "fairly similar" to those of their compatriots at home, he told Haaretz. The Republicans beg to differ. "Israel is a very red state," Bardash said. He estimates that at least 75 percent of Israeli Americans participating in the 2004 presidential election voted for George W. Bush. He believes an even higher percentage will do so for John McCain this November, though he says there are no definitive statistics.

Israel as Teaneck

Bardash uses sociopolitical arguments to make his case. The majority of U.S. Jews who move to Israel are "more Jewishly involved, more observant, and people who rank Israel as a very high priority in their lives," he says. "Most American Jews don't consider Israel an important thing in their lives. You have to look at Israel as Teaneck, New Jersey," Bardash adds, referring to a city with a strong Orthodox population. A 2004 exit poll reported in the Bergen Record indicated that Bush garnered 62 percent of the Orthodox Jewish vote in Teaneck.

Other experts take into consideration the place that Israel takes in the lives of individuals. U.S. immigrants to Israel are a "pre-selected group," said Malachi Hacohen, a professor of history, political science and religion at Duke University He points out that the Jewish state is the focus of their lives, while most other American Jews see Israel as only one among several considerations. However, he surmised that Democrats are still a majority of U.S. immigrants in Israel. "Democratic Jews are no less Zionist," he said. He added that the notion of Republicans as the better friend of Israel is of recent vintage and not widely shared in the U.S., "not nearly as widely as in Israel."

Jonathan Rynhold, who teaches political studies at Bar Ilan University , said that Americans in Israel are "a very mixed bag" in terms of political leanings. He predicts, however, that "religious American immigrants will vote for McCain probably." Religion is indeed an important factor in analyzing voting patterns. According to a much quoted June Gallup poll, the Democratic candidate and his Republican opponent received the same percentage of votes among religious American Jews. However, 68 percent of American Jews for whom "religion is not important" favored Obama, compared to 26 percent who preferred McCain.

Israeli-American skepticism of the Illinois senator is supported by a March 2008 survey suggesting that only 12 percent wanted him to become the party's presidential nominee, while 61 percent preferred Clinton. Israel was only one of three countries in the Democrats Abroad global primary in February where Obama lost to Clinton.

Switching sides

Some analysts think that American Jews change their political views once they arrive in Israel. Many immigrants want to integrate into Israeli society and thus are more prone to vote Republican, according to Itzhak Oren, a retired ambassador who also served as minister for congressional affairs in the Israeli embassy in Washington. "Israeli society in general is security-oriented and leans toward many values that are attributed to Republicans," he said. "So here comes a Jewish American and you might be a Democrat, but once you understand the reality, and you see the reality and you feel it, you believe in the Republican attitude."

The Republicans in Israel would like to believe that. Their branch here receives "hundreds and hundreds of e-mails and inquiries from people who have voted Democratic in the past," according to Bardash. A large percentage of the group's membership and "hundreds of people" have stated that 2008 will be the first election in which they will vote for the Republican candidate, he said.

Others don't believe political preferences change so quickly. "That's absolute nonsense," said Schorer, from the Israeli Democrats. He did concede, however, that President Bush is liked among many Jews, and that McCain is likely to inherit his popularity because he is seen as a third-term Bush. Indeed, experts of Jewish voting patterns have said this year's Democratic candidate makes some Jews uneasy.

They have doubts about Obama's foreign policy experience and his friendliness toward Israel, said Bar Ilan's Rynhold. But to assume that Democrats turn Republican as soon as they enter Israel is "a myth," he said. "Non-orthodox liberals would be totally fine voting for Hillary [Clinton]. With Obama they might have an issue because they're not clear whether he's a liberal or anti-Israel. He's the first candidate since Jimmy Carter to be perceived this way."