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ISRAEL: Americans in Israel vote

October 29, 2008 | 12:30 pm

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Veteran voters

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Dena Lerner

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Voting for Obama

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Ballot balagan

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Obama Girl, Tery (left) 

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Exit poll team

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Straight into the box

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Nancy Statfield

 

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The third floor of Jerusalem's Orthodox Union building was packed Tuesday evening. A cross section of Americans living in Israel patiently stood in a long line wrapped around the corridor, waiting to enter the room and juggle pens, passports and papers to cast their vote in the U.S. presidential elections.

The obvious questions of who they voted for and why will be answered by the exit polls analysis Thursday. But beyond that, the occasion offers an interesting window into the life of Americans living in Israel, their ties to the U.S. and how they perceive their civic rights and duties.

'Israeliness' is popularly defined more by the experience than the citizenship. But a considerable part of being American is defined by citizenship, an apparent technicality but representing a code of values. American immigrants -- recent and veteran -- retain their citizenship. And this, with its rights and responsibilities, is not taken lightly -- including voting.

Many American immigrants to Israel have left behind families, assets and many practical domestic concerns. Physically moving to Israel weakens neither emotional ties nor a strong civic sense of belonging. Voting is as much a part of good citizenship as paying U.S. taxes, which most living in Israel do too.

Why vote? Becase we can, says Dena Lerner, whose organization votefromisrael.org organized the event. "As American citizens, we have the opportunity to impact the world. Why would anyone allow such an opportunity and privilege to fall by the wayside?" she asks incredulously. Every vote counts.

Dena moved from the San Fernando Valley seven years ago. Two months ago, after learning over dinner that friends were indifferent to the campaign and voting, Dena founded VoteFromIsrael -- a nonpartisan organization encouraging U.S. citizens to vote and assisting with registration and bureaucratic procedures.

250,000 U.S. citizens live in Israel. Half are eligible voters, many from important swing states such as Florida and Ohio. About 42,000 are registered voters, one of the largest groups of overseas voters. In only a few weeks, the organization of volunteers held registration drives, helped nearly 10,000 people process their forms and held voting events. Many, especially older voters, are grateful for the personal touch.

"Elections are increasingly more important in terms of the world and the people offering their services. The stakes grow higher each time," said Nancy Statfield, who moved from New York three years ago. As a citizen and taxpayer, Nancy believes her voice has a right to be heard on matters. And until America's deep involvement in Israeli politics changes, she is well within her moral right to vote too. For her, it was more of a matter of who not to vote for. "I have too many question marks about [Barack] Obama. He is untested, literally came out of nowhere. He has too many relations with people and organizations I consider questionable, and I do not feel he represents my interests as a Jew, whether American, Israeli or both."

Most of the support for Obama seemed to come from the younger voters and the student body. One young woman was wearing an "Obama for yo Mama" T-shirt. A young man chanting O-ba-ma! was politely shushed at the nonpartisan event.

Like many her age, Tery Herbstman, a 22-year-old post-graduate student from Chicago, cast her ballot for Obama. But more than that, she took the trouble on a rainy evening to vote for her district congressman, Mark Kirk.

Aviva and George Lebovitz of Los Angeles retired to Israel a year ago. They haven't missed an election in 40 years -- and this will be no exception. Unlike Dena, who believes most will vote on specific issues such as Iran and the economy rather than on a partisan basis, the two believe most people vote on long-entrenched party ideology and find justifications why their candidate's policies would prove better for Israel. Both voted for McCain. "I believe he will be more vigorous against the Islamist threat that threatens America as well as Israel. I have more trust in him on foreign affairs," explained George Lebovitz, who thinks Obama will be bad for Israel. Aviva wasn't willing to vote for Obama either, although she was more willing to credit him with a good learning curve. Maybe better perspective will come with experience, she said.

Still, "the most pertinent thing at the moment is the economy," said George Lebovitz, former headmaster at the Kadima Hebrew Academy. "If the economy hadn't crashed, McCain would have had a good chance of winning."

It will be interesting to see who the hundreds of others voted for. As for why they all still vote, Aviva Lebovitz voiced the sentiment shared by all others: "We moved to Israel but haven't deserted America."

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Photo credits: Batsheva Sobelman / Los Angeles Times

P.S. Get news from the Middle East in your mailbox every day. The Los Angeles Times distributes a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, as well as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can subscribe by logging in at the website here, clicking on the box for "L.A. Times updates" and then clicking on the "World: Mideast" box.

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