JERUSALEM -- Ardent grassroots Obama-supporters from Israel are out to convince Jewish voters in the United States that the Democratic candidate would be a welcome change in the troubled Middle East.
Israelis across the political spectrum, from leftwing actors to retired spy chiefs and generals, are challenging the conventional wisdom that a Republican hawk in the White House would be in their best interests. Their weapon of choice? Online video.
Sarah Silverman's Great Schlep schtick gets the most hits and even prompted video-kvetching by comedian Jackie Mason, but several Israeli-made pro-Obama clips are making a big impact on YouTube and political websites.
They are raising eyebrows and attracting attention. One video, sponsored by The Jewish Council for Education & Research (JCER), a non-profit organization that supports Obama's presidential run, features seven senior defense officials from Israel who now are crying foul.
After this spot was first aired this weekend, the military men reportedly complained that they were misled by video producers who had given them the impression that they were filming a sober documentary, rather than endorsing the Democratic candidate. Meddling in an ally's politics is not part of the generals' usual modus operandi and some say they felt duped. The JCER also funds JewsVote.org, a website which has commissioned a video to counter GOP smears and includes a clip showing Jewish-American leaders who back Barack.
That's a lot of effort, considering that Jewish voters comprise less than 5 percent of American voters, and even inside Israel, during the 2004 presidential elections, only a small fraction of the quarter million dual citizens eligible to vote bothered to cast absentee ballots from the so-called 51st state. An estimated 35,000 did, and most were religious Jews who overwhelmingly voted Republican. Evangelicals, Christian Zionists, and Millenial Jews visit Israel in droves and often make huge donations to settlers' groups. Rocket-riddled Sderot, located on the edge of the Gaza Strip and a target of Hamas militants, is now on the pilgrimage route for American religious tourists from Non-denominational Mega-Churches.
Samson Altman-Schevitz, who co-founded the cyber-group Israelis for Obama this summer with activist Tony Jassen, reckons that Jewish voters could make a numerical difference in a swing state such as Florida or Ohio. And , because of the potential nuclear threat of Iran, the AIPAC lobby is more influential than ever. He wants to counter the fear factor and is convinced that Israeli endorsement could help Obama triumph in November. "We are on the ground, we know what it's like to face terror. And the Bush approach is undermining security in the region. The US is overstretched militarily and economically and even conservatives would admit that Israel needs an ally whose army is potentially active, " says Altman-Schevitz , age 30. Michele Obama was his mentor at the University of Chicago in 1996, and he recalls a "brilliant, approachable and down-to-earth advisor who would greet me with a big hug". His volunteer group in Israel has no links to to the official Obama campaign, and consists of seven cyber-savvy activists.
The most compelling pro-Obama video clip from Israel is in the same upbeat mode as the "Yes We Can!" spot, which Bob Dylan's son, Jesse Dylan, famously directed. This one-- also called "Israelis for Obama"-- is the brainchild of a Tel Aviv tv whiz named Alma Har'el, who directs music videos for Foo Fighters, among other bands. She and her American husband, Boaz Yakin, took just a week and a half in Israel to complete the spot, with no advance preparation and no production company. They were encouraged by a colleague, Lawrence Bender, an Oscar nominee who produced An inconvenient Truth and Pulp Fiction. Towards the end of the project, the couple joined forces with Jews For Change, who helped finish the editing and with distribution
"There's a real sense of urgency in this election and, living in Israel most of my life, I know how much America effects the world and what it stands for," Alma Har'el told the Huffington Post. "It's a private grass-roots effort to fight the lies the Republicans have been spreading and will spread this coming month to scare the Jewish voters in the US. The reason I made this video is that as an Israeli living in the US I felt the media here rarely shows the Israel that I know and love ... only an Israel filled with McCain supporters who are afraid of Obama's middle name and don't know the value of diplomacy. This video is meant to show that real diversity actually exists in Israel.There are young, old, left wing and yes... even a number of right wing Israelis who support Obama. The fact that he wants to try diplomacy before war, doesn't make him an enemy, it makes him a smart leader.We want to inspire Jewish voters to check their facts and realize that Obama is very committed to Israel's security!"
"It's important to understand that we're not trying to say all of Israel is for Obama, but these ones are and their voices deserve to be heard as well," said Amnon Lipkin Shachak, a former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Member of the Knesset and cabinet minister who went on camera to boost Barack.
This clip moved Rabbi Brad Hirschfield to post a comment online. "It shows the Israel to which Obama is committed i.e. pluralist, sophisticated, multi-lingual, racially/ethnically diverse, artistically accomplished, militarily powerful, and committed to peace," he wrote. "It tells us that Obama will work with people like those in the video to make sure that neither Israel nor the world gets destroyed if Iran goes nuclear. I know that is not as sexy as scaring people into WW III, but it strikes me as far smarter."
The Weekly Standard recently dispatched Willy Stern to Israel. The intrepid reporter has boasted that he can easily disguise himself as a 'liberal Jew' and catch leftists off-guard. In mid-September, prior to McCain's choice of the addled Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin, who has since become a favorite pistol-packing pinup of his neo-conservative editor, William Kristol, Stern grilled Israelis and Palestinians about their impressions of the US Presidential candidates. The aim of his commission presumably is to goose liberal-leaning American Jews to consider the existential threat to Israel if they won't vote for the GOP, like Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman does.
But if these video clips are any indication of the political climate inside Israel, Stern may have had to dig deeper than he planned during a five-day blitz in the Ramallah and Jerusalem. His scare tactics were anticipated by independent Israeli videographers like Alma Har'el.
"We're concerned about Jewish voters who are so wrapped in fear that they can't see beyond the lies and distortions," she told the Huffington Post. "We're also extremely concerned about Sarah Palin; it's in Israel's interest to have intelligent support from people who know the region and its many complexities, not just bellicose lip service paid by those who know nothing about it at all."