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The View from America: U.S. Jews Followed Elections Aided by Sushi and the Internet

The kosher sushi was gone by 10:00 p.m. Monday evening, but many guests at Fred Howard’s apartment overlooking the glittering lights of Manhattan stayed on, waiting to hear the latest results from Israel’s elections.

About 100 supporters of the left-leaning Americans for Peace Now and Israel’s Meretz Party had gathered under Howard’s gold, sculpted ceiling to watch as APN’s Policy Director Mark Rosenblum noted in thick black marker the tallies from the polls, dictated to him from Israel via his cellular phone, on an oversized pad of white paper.

As the results continued to roll in, confirming early indications that the Labor Party’s Ehud Barak would be Israel’s next prime minister, the mood was jubilant.

Despite the use of intercontinental wireless communications, the scene was a relatively low-tech celebration of Israel’s democracy on a day when big-screen TVs and computer graphics delivered instant election updates and analysis to groups of Jews gathered across the United States, from New York to Los Angeles.

The unfettered sea of high technology, the Internet, also provided a lively forum for many Americans Jews to discuss Israel’s election returns.

Hundreds of people sounded off on their views of Barak’s victory during live interactive “chats” hosted by various sites, while others posted messages on electronic bulletin boards.

“Delighted to see Netanyahu is defeated,” wrote one Barak supporter in a message posted on the Jewish Community Online’s site on America Online. “He was a dishonest liar from the start who never intended to keep Israel’s peace agreements. Maybe now Israel can begin to regain international respect by implementing the Wye River Accords.”

“Hello Barak, goodbye Jerusalem, goodbye Golan Heights,” lamented a supporter of Israel’s ousted premier, Benjamin Netanyahu. “Peace at any price will mean no more Israel,” the writer said, adding “no wonder Arafat is happy.”

One free-flowing exchange in a chat room on the site, meanwhile, contained a series of piquant observations, such as this one from a dismayed Netanyahu supporter: “Arabs were dancing in the streets.

“What does that tell you?”

“It could just as well tell you that they feel that a peace may develop,” replied a backer of the newly elected prime minister.

And this from one observer apparently impressed with the role American political consultants played in boosting Barak to victory: “James Carville should be given a post in the new government.”

Organized Jewish reaction to the elections varied widely.

“The big story of this Israel election is that Bibi’s `empire’ of messianic settlers, religious zealots and political extremists didn’t strike back — it struck out — while the forces of moderation scored a resounding victory,” Debra DeLee, president and CEO of APN, said in a statement, using Netanyahu’s nickname.

A U.S. group that supports Jewish settlers on the West Bank released a much more sober statement.

“We are very concerned about the results of the Israeli elections,” said Steven Orlow, the national president of One Israel/Yesha. “The Jewish community in this area has many security concens, and we are quite concerned about the possible creation of a Palestinian state.”

Other, more centrist Jewish groups released statements congratulating Barak, praising Israel’s democracy and calling for unity between Israel and world Jewry.

The Israeli Consulate in New York sponsored what it billed as a celebration of Israel’s democracy, complete with blue-and-white flags and helium balloons.

Election results and television news coverage on big-screen TVs gave the roughly 200 guests the feeling of being where the action was — and a weak air- conditioning system contributed a somewhat Mediterranean atmosphere.

The event also featured instant translations of Israeli media; not that many of the attendees needed it.

Many of those gathered were leaders of Jewish organizations headquartered in New York. The rest were young Israelis, who — despite an admonition at the start of the event from Consul General Shmuel Sisso that it was to be non- political — let out a cheer when the initial results reported that Ehud Barak would be their new prime minister.

At the United Jewish Communities headquarters across town, the cheering was much the same, just at a lower volume.

About 20 people gathered in a conference room there to watch a live video conference linking the leaders of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs with the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute, panelists in Washington and members of Jewish communities from San Francisco to South Florida.

But shortly after the first results were announced and organized into a multicolored chart for easy reference, many of the attendees in New York – – UJA-Federation of New York contributors and board members and employees of the UJC and JCPA — drifted out of the room.

By the end of the hourlong video conference, there appeared to be more Jews in Salt Lake City, where about 10 people sat around a conference table. In New York, only four viewers stuck it out to the last moment of the video conference, which had the jumpy visual feel of a view inside the space shuttle.

“Let’s go watch CNN,” one guest said as he made for the door to return to his office.

In Detroit, about two dozen Jews were doing just that. The Jewish Community Council there sponsored a gathering in the local federation’s conference room, where about two dozen people came to watch cable TV news coverage and to monitor the race for prime minister and Knesset membership from a variety of American and Israeli Internet sites.

“People walked in and they were wowed,” said Allan Gale, the council’s assistant director, who organized the event down to the color printouts of campaign posters and bumper stickers put out by Barak and incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu.

Gale said he thought the participants, many of whom were Israeli or had children living in Israel, had chosen to come together, rather than stay home to watch, for the “technology and camaraderie.”

“It’s the not the kind of thing you can get in your living room,” he said.

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