Watching the Election From Israel, Democrats and Republicans Can at Least Agree on One Thing

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A woman watching Election Night coverage in Las Vegas, November 3, 2020 (illustrative).
A woman watching Election Night coverage in Las Vegas, November 3, 2020 (illustrative).Credit: John Locher/AP

As Judy Golub prepares to host a small U.S. election “watch party” at her Modi’in home on Wednesday morning, the 74-year-old Israeli American retiree can’t help but look back. “Once Democrats and Republicans might have all watched together, celebrating democracy, our right to vote and our commitments as Jews and Israelis,” she tells Haaretz. “But we can’t do that anymore. Everything within our communities – the Anglo community in Israel and the American Jewish community – is just too polarized.”

Together with husband Bob, she’s hosting a small, socially distanced gathering of members of Democrats Abroad. Bob, a former Conservative pulpit rabbi in the United States, nods his head sadly. “The polarization of the Jewish community in America is seeping into the Anglo community here too,” he says.

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From about 6:30 A.M. onward, people wander in and out of the Golubs’ home. A large television screen is broadcasting election coverage from CNN. On smaller screens, people are following the “Watch Party” – a five-hour virtual meeting organized by the Israeli chapter of Democrats Abroad (which is officially part of the Democratic Party).

Several guests are wearing T-shirts that read “Biden 2020” in Hebrew, or “B”H” – referring to “Biden-Harris” or, more colloquially, the Hebrew acronym for “With God’s Help.” The mood is casual, subdued. “We know it’s going to be a long day, maybe even long days,” says Bob as he pours coffee refills and offers cake to the early arrivals. “We’re keeping ourselves steady, and until we know the final results we’re not going to get excited about this or that tally.”

Eliot Zimelman, 60, originally from Maine, has lived in Israel “for decades,” yet he says it’s important to him to still vote in U.S. elections – especially this time around.

“I have roots and family in the United States. People in the U.S. are preparing for violence, boarding up store fronts, and I wonder if the U.S. is now like a Third World country, unable to conduct democratic elections. I care about the U.S. and I care about Israel.”

As American and Israeli stations broadcast early results and forecasts, the attendees discuss the implications and count potential electoral votes. But even when President Donald Trump announces his intent to turn to the Supreme Court to secure victory, they remain calm and reflective.

“I don’t understand American Jews who come to live in Israel and become so insular,” Bob observes. “They live here, and they vote for Trump because they say he meets their needs as a Jew and an Israeli. That’s such a superficial, self-serving view of the world. Even in our communal and volunteer organizations, the divide is becoming increasingly uncomfortable. We all talk about Jewish values, but we don’t have the same values.”

Warming to his theme, he says: “In fact, this relates to the portion of the week that we read last week. In Pirkei Avot [‘Ethics of the Fathers’], we’re told that the sin of Sodom was that the people believed in ‘What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours,’ and had no interest in others.”

Adds Judy, “It’s all so misguided. They say, ‘Trump is good for Israel.’ But he isn’t. The few things he’s done for Israel, such as moving the embassy to Jerusalem, are merely symbolic and make things even worse with the Palestinians – with whom we have to make peace. Worst of all, Trump is making support for Israel into a partisan issue. That’s dangerous for Israel.”

Screenshots from the Democrats Abroad "Watch Party" in Israel, November 4, 2020.Credit: Zoom screenshot

‘I feel marginalized’

The gathering’s attention is divided between CNN and the official watch party, which includes a hundred or so viewers from all over the country, tuning in at different times. Emcee Elana Sztokman, a feminist and political activist originally from New York, has lived in Israel for decades. She opens the session at 5 A.M. with a promise that she will “not rush the results. We will relate only to reliable information. We want to get it right, and the source of our information will be the Democratic Party and the Biden campaign, of which we’re a part.”

Various officials and pundits appear on the watch party, including Fitz Haney, the former U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica who was the only Obama-appointed political ambassador in the world to remain in place under Trump; former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro; former Rep. Steve Israel (New York), who now heads a global affairs think tank at Cornell University; and Merav Ben-David, the Israeli-American professor at the University of Wyoming who was competing as the Democratic nominee in the state’s Senate election. She lost.

All are connected virtually as Sztokman moderates from her home in Modi’in. In addition to the commentaries, the event includes comic relief by comedian Benji Lovitt, who, among other quips, “explains” why Israeli elections are better. Cantor Evan Kent leads the virtual crowd in song and prayer.

Others tune in occasionally, playing trivia games and holding pseudo “discussions” about the importance of devouring carbohydrates during tense political times.

After concluding the watch party at 10 A.M., Sztokman joins the Golubs. She explains that Democrats Abroad encouraged all of its chapters worldwide to initiate these events as a way of thanking volunteers and building supportive political communities – especially as these can only be done virtually due to the coronavirus.

She says she feels the need for that sense of community, especially here in Israel. “We’re living in terrible times,” she sighs. “Whether Trump wins or loses, the fact that so many people voted for him – in the U.S. and in Israel – shows how divided we are.

“I feel marginalized and even dehumanized here within my own community,” she adds. “Trump uses the word ‘liberal’ just like Netanyahu uses the word ‘leftist’ – as a way to delegitimize opponents. And they’ve given permission to the worst kinds of verbal and even physical violence.”

Sztokman, who also contributes regular op-eds to The Jerusalem Post, says she regularly receives insults and hate mail from Anglo-Israelis. “I’m called a ‘self-hating Jew’ and get called ‘leftist slut’ and other such names,” she says. “It’s horrifying and terrifying to realize how hate-filled our communities are. We live in completely different realities.”

‘Trump validated us’

According to Marc Zell, co-chairman of Republicans Overseas Israel, the GOP organization didn’t arrange any official activities in Israel due to coronavirus restrictions. Yet a chance meeting at a gas station with a group of six Anglo-Israelis reiterates just how divided Anglo Democrats and Anglo Republicans have become.

The group, three men and three women, are on their way from Modi’in to Jerusalem to meet with friends and watch the “results and be together when Trump announces his victory,” they say.

None of them want to give their full names or have their pictures taken, they explain, because “we don’t trust the ‘left-wing media,’ not in Israel and not in the United States.”

Elaine, 58, is a retired schoolteacher who’s lived in Israel for 25 years. “I don’t understand American Jews who come to live in Israel but support [Joe] Biden. Don’t they love Israel? Don’t they see what we see? Or are they living in a different reality?” she asks rhetorically, unintentionally echoing Sztokman’s comments.

“Donald Trump has done so much for Israel,” says Moshe, 63, a high-tech businessman. “Not only has he moved the embassy, recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, recognized our settlements and brokered peace deals with Arab countries – he also put the Palestinians in their place.

“Even more importantly,” he continues, “he has validated us, as proud Jews. We don’t have to kowtow to anyone anymore – not to the world or to self-hating leftist Jews.”

Elaine wants to clarify something. “This isn’t just about disagreeing over policy,” she says. “I came to Israel to live as a full Jew – religiously, morally and politically. I really don’t understand the values and ideas of these people after all that Trump has done for us here.”

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