|Rabbi Chaim Wasserman on the debate stage at Heichal Shlomo in Jerusalem.|
Regina Mansdorf came to Jersey City in 1947 after surviving World War II. She married, moved to Brooklyn, and then moved to Jerusalem 24 years ago, to an apartment near the official president’s residence. When President George Bush visited his Israeli counterpart last spring, Mansdorf had something to tell him: “I’m still American. Israel is my country, but America is a part of us. We survived the Holocaust and came to America. We got our jobs in America. We made our money in America. We bought a house in America. I get Social Security from America. If not for America, I wouldn’t be able to live here.”
Given such strong patriotic feelings, it was not surprising that Mansdorf and her husband, Meyer, came to a U.S. “presidential-style” debate here on the last Thursday in September, the night before the actual Obama-McCain debate in Mississippi. The event, featuring representatives of the Republican and Democratic parties, was sponsored by a new non-partisan grassroots organization called the American Israeli Action Coalition (www.aiacoalition.org).
|Regina and Meyer Mansdorf. Photos by Abigail Klein Leichman|
According to Harvey Schwartz, AIAC’s chairman, more than 250,000 American citizens live in Israel. Most, he believes, “are vitally interested in the upcoming U.S. election, which will be one of the most significant elections in recent memory. They recognize the impact which this election may have on U.S.-Israel relations.”
Others have a different view. Former Teaneck resident Yonina Hofman, for example, never registered to vote before moving to Israel at age 23 and does not plan to do so now. “I’m not sure the American presidential election has any relevance to me,” said the young mother. “I’m kind of 50-50 on that.”
J.J. Levine, a former Teaneck resident also in his late 20s, said, “My feeling is that a lot of people [in Israel] are not interested in voting this year, either because they are not interested in politics or don’t feel they have a right to have a say in what goes on over there. I don’t feel ecstatic enough about either candidate to register and vote. If I felt overwhelmingly about either, I would.”
Ronnie Levin, who moved here from Teaneck 16 years ago, said he and his wife and their five children, ranging in age from 19 to 28, all intend to vote. “Some are taking more of an interest in it than others,” he said. “I think in terms of Israel’s interest, the presidential election was more crucial in 2004 and now in 2008 than it was in 2000.”
Former Teaneck resident Aaron Tirschwell, AIAC’s director, noted that “American law permits American citizens residing anywhere in the world to vote by absentee ballot. American citizens in Israel come from many of the most important ‘swing’ states – such as New York, New Jersey, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and California.”
Tirschwell is also director of Israel Operations for the National Council of Young Israel, an apolitical organization; the two positions he holds are not connected. (See related story.)
His colleague, Rabbi Chaim Wasserman – leader of Young Israel of Passaic-Clifton for 37 years before making aliyah three years ago – served as time-keeper for the debate. Like Tirschwell, Wasserman stressed that his role that evening was separate from his position as co-president of the National Council of Young Israel Rabbis in Israel.
“The purpose [of the debate] is to get Americans to accept the responsibility of involvement,” he said. “If America allows us to vote, we have a responsibility to do so, and to express ourselves intelligently.”
Wasserman said the current presidential race is generating “a historic kind of excitement that I haven’t seen since Kennedy came on the scene. I would hope this enthusiasm is translated into the ballot box. You can be blown away by speeches, but you’ve got to be there to vote.”
When asked whether Americans living abroad have the same moral right to vote as those living in the country, Wasserman said, “If you’re still carrying a Social Security card, if you’re still carrying an American passport, you have absolutely the same right as anyone living in New Jersey or in Montana. And because the outcome of the election so heavily impacts especially upon Israel, it’s also a responsibility.”
AIAC leaders and members had drafted questions and presented them to Marc Zell, co-chairman of Republicans Abroad-Israel, and Sheldon Schorer, counsel to Democrats Abroad-Israel. Zell and Schorer had forwarded them to the candidates and based their debate on their responses. The issues discussed ranged from the Iranian threat, peace between Israel and its neighbors, the status of Jerusalem, granting a pardon to Jonathan Pollard, the U.S. economic crisis, and energy policy.
The event was co-sponsored by VotefromIsrael.org, which had absentee ballot applications available.
In New Jersey, absentee ballots mailed by the deadline are tallied on Election Day by the county governments. Schwartz said there is a common misconception that absentee ballots are not opened unless it’s a very close election. “Perhaps the basis of the misunderstanding is that they may arrive after Election Day, and be counted after that Tuesday, but they are counted,” Schwartz said.
Not everyone in attendance was going to need such a ballot. Sheila Prince, for example, came to the debate even though she was just here visiting her children in Israel. Prince, who lived in Clifton from 1996 to 2006 before moving to Florida, said she wanted to hear what the representatives had to say.
“I feel that people here can’t see any way to vote for Obama but don’t necessarily like McCain either,” she said, “and that for the last, maybe 30, years it’s just been a choice of voting against the lesser of two evils.” However, she added, “I happen to think McCain is good. I like his ideas and I’m not worried about his age.”
Mansdorf, whose nephew Abe Leidner lives in Teaneck, said she was pretty sure for whom she would vote, but wanted to keep it confidential. “I only hope whoever’s going to come in should be good for America and good for us, because Israel depends on America, our closest ally,” she said