In Jerusalem, hours after Trump-Clinton face-off, we Americans hear our votes might really matter
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Reporter's Notebook

In Jerusalem, hours after Trump-Clinton face-off, we Americans hear our votes might really matter

With their own version of the presidential debate, Marc Zell and Sheldon Schorer reach out to the Israel-based 0.2 percent of the US electorate

Marc Zell, from Republicans Overseas Israel, and Sheldon Schorer, from Democrats Abroad Israel, speaking to journalists in Jerusalem, September 27, 2016 (Raphael Ahren/TOI)
Marc Zell, from Republicans Overseas Israel, and Sheldon Schorer, from Democrats Abroad Israel, speaking to journalists in Jerusalem, September 27, 2016 (Raphael Ahren/TOI)

Ha-Rav Kook 8, Jerusalem. I arrive at 11, an hour early, to get a good seat.

There will be blood, insults and bickering. At noon, two grown men, both American-Israeli, will recap the debate between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump with a mini-debate here, three blocks from the midrechov, or pedestrian walkway. They will shout and name-call and all the other things that make American politics such riveting sport.

Except when I get to Ha-Rav Kook 8, I see the entrance to the building and the room inside where the debate will be held (podium up front, cameras in the back) — but I can’t find the door to the room itself. As I walk around the block and then try the elevator up and back down, I think about how this is a pretty good metaphor for the US presidential election: as an American now living in Israel, I’m watching from the outside but can’t figure out a way in. I care about the issues, but now that I’m here, are they mine?

I admit, I’m skeptical about this recap debate. My family and I moved to Israel seven weeks ago. One reason we came is that I tired of dual-loyalty. Unlike many of my American-Jewish friends, I’ve never voted for presidential candidates based on their stances toward Israel. Instead, I voted for the person whose values on a whole range of issues — from how to combat poverty to gay rights to minimum wage — matched my own.

One reason I could get away with this was because, no matter who won, I was never all that affected personally. Through Democratic and Republican presidents, multiple Gulf Wars, bank bailouts and government shutdowns, my world stayed more or less the same.

All the more so now that I’m living here, not there. Right?

The predictable jabs

The format for the debate is simple. Marc Zell, co-chair of Israel’s chapter of Americans Abroad, represents Trump. Zell is tall and gregarious, and has the ruddy-faced look of a cantor emeritus from a Conservative synagogue.

On the other side, representing Clinton, is Sheldon Schorer, former chairman of Democrats in Israel. He has a round, friendly face and is grandfatherly in a Wilfred Brimley kind of way.

There is no moderator. Instead, Zell and Schorer take turns stating why their candidate is best both for the job and for Israel. After each speaks, the other gets to rebut. It is low key and reminds me of the Student Council debates I sat through at Solomon Schechter (Day School).

For thirty minutes Zell and Schorer trade predictable jabs. Zell blames Democrats for America’s poor standing in the world and a $1.7 billion windfall paid to Iran — “in cash!!” — that guarantees nothing except an eventual nuclear bomb.

Schorer reminds Zell that Obama took office when the economy was in shambles, the Middle East destabilized from war in Iraq, and that Clinton’s first job as secretary of state was to fly around the world making amends with all the foreign leaders Bush had pissed off.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak at the same time during the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Rick T. Wilking/Pool via AP)
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak at the same time during the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Rick T. Wilking/Pool via AP)

They actually mirror their respective candidates well, in demeanor and — in Zell’s case — physically. Schorer-as-Clinton is thoughtful and articulate. On an emotional Richter scale he levels out at 2.

Zell, meanwhile, is a Trump understudy. He waves his arms. Raises his voice. In his introductory remarks, he calls black people “Afro-Americans.” He also goes after Schorer a bit personally: more than a few of Zell’s sentences begin with “as Sheldon neglected to mention” or “what Sheldon didn’t bother to tell you.”

FATCA. And cupcakes

Around 12:45 my attention drifts to the cupcake table. There’s a spread set up in back. I consider whether taking a cupcake during a debate is an affront to American democracy when suddenly, Zell-as-Trump roars: “FATCA!” in reference to the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act.

“FATCA was a Republican—” Schorer starts.

Zell cuts him off: “Because of FATCA, Americans in Israel have taxation without representation.”

“FATCA was passed in 2010,” Schorer counters.

“By a Democrat president who—”

“It was a Republican Congress.”

“What you’re not telling us, Sheldon…”

And I’m riveted. For the first time since we began, it feels like an actual debate. More importantly, they’re talking about money — my money.

FATCA, Zell explains, is a bill passed by Congress that forces non-US banks to report the financial activity of their American clients living abroad — the idea being that these US citizens will pay taxes on money earned in foreign countries.

“Not only does this mean double taxes for American living it Israel,” Zell says. “It means sensitive banking data is transferred to the IRS. Whose servers are constantly hacked!”

To which Schorer-as-Clinton offers no decent reply other than to blame FATCA on Republicans.

“And furthermore,” Zell bellows — he’s on a roll now — “the US is one of only three countries that taxes its citizens based on citizenship, not residency.” The other two, according to Zell? North Korea (a bad country) and Eritrea (which I didn’t realize was a country).

And maybe it’s kind of sad that it’s FATCA and double-taxation and not, say, an Iranian nuclear warhead, that jolts me from the cupcake table to the issues at hand. But Zell and Schorer have managed the incredible: they’ve gotten me thinking that this election might actually matter to me on a personal level. More, perhaps, than the elections I’d voted in back where homes used to be.

Where they agree

The one thing Schorer and Zell absolutely agree on is that Americans living in Israel need to vote. They estimate at least 200,000, and maybe as many as 300,000, are eligible to vote — if only they’d register.

They back this up with some incredible stats: There are 200,000 eligible US voters in Israel, “which doesn’t sound like much,” Schorer acknowledges, “until you consider that each state is two percent of the US.”

“Together, the nine million American expatriates around the globe comprise what would be the 14th or 15th largest state in the union,” says Schorer

And as for how Americans in Israel should vote?

“If you live in the middle of Kansas,” Schorer says, “you vote for the candidate who supports farming. If you live in Israel, you vote for the one who best supports your living in Israel.”

I can’t say I’ll follow Schorer’s advice; I’m inclined to take into account the whole bundle of issues I always have. But this pair of expats in navy suits got me to see it differently. And to feel like even though I’m here, I’m in.

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