On a recent Saturday night in Jerusalem the “Trump in Israel” campaign was in its element. All it took to attract a rowdy crowd to a voter registration drive was a table of made-in-Israel Trump hats and t-shirts stationed outside a bar popular among young Americans. Within a few hours, as recorded Trump speeches played, tens of 18-year-old Americans on gap years had registered to vote, eagerly shouting “Build the Wall” and sporting their new swag.
Frieda Shannah, 18, from New York, had initially stopped to watch the spectacle, not to register. She and her family and friends all supported Trump because they opposed Hillary Clinton and her Israel policies. “I feel like this whole thing is rigged. I feel like my vote doesn’t count,” she said.
“I really want a hat,” she added.
A few minutes later she had one, having decided to register after all.
The general bizarreness of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign (it has spent more on hats than on polling) is also on full display in Israel. While in America the campaign has been notoriously disorderly, with far fewer field offices and get-out-the-vote campaigns than previous Republican candidates, in Israel it has a highly motivated and coordinated core group of Republican and right-wing supporters who are mobilizing to elect Trump—even though anti-Semitic and xenophobic sentiments in America have risen along with him.
Unlike the Democrats Abroad in Israel group, who are more decentralized, have no budget or offices, and are all volunteers, Republicans in Israel raises money, courts media attention, and has seven part-time offices and more than five paid political consultants to keep up the momentum.
iVoteIsrael, a non-partisan voter registration group, estimates there are about 200,000 eligible American voters in Israel; by one estimate some 60,000 of those live in West Bank settlements (which are considered illegal under international law). In America Jews generally vote Democrat, and most are supporting Hillary Clinton. Israelis, according to a poll taken in October (before the release of a recording of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women) preferred Clinton to Trump by a wide margin, too. But many Americans in Israel, and in particular those in the West Bank, may be more likely to support Trump, given his support for the settler movement and his opposition to last year’s nuclear deal with Iran.
The Trump in Israel campaign manager, Tzvika Brot, is a political consultant with ties to Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his conservative Likud Party. Brot joined the campaign in a paid capacity right after the Republican National Convention in July. Since then, they’ve organized about 10 public events with the press; opened seven offices, including one in a West Bank settlement; and, on October 26, held a rally in Jerusalem that included short recordings from Trump and the vice-presidential nominee, Mike Pence.
Brot estimates the campaign has around 100 volunteers, about 60%-70% of whom are American citizens. (Brot himself is not.) Board members and other supporters offer office space rent-free. Brot said phone banks or street canvassing efforts happen nearly every day, often led by 20- to 25-year-old male volunteers. The strategic team is now about 10 people, including a spokeswoman, volunteer chief, social media consultants, and liaison with the ultra-orthodox Haredi community.
Brot has read about how disorderly Trump’s campaign in America is and contrasts it with the Israeli one. “That’s something we’re very proud of,” he says.
The campaign seems also to be better, and more loudly, organized than Hillary Clinton’s campaign in Israel. Part of the reason is that while Republicans in Israel and the local Trump campaign are in touch with their US counterparts, they are legally and financially separate entities. Republicans in Israel is a registered non-profit in Israel, which, says Marc Zell, its founder and chairman, enables it to raise money from Americans and Israelis in Israel. In contrast, Democrats in Israel is associated with the Democratic National Committee and party, and can’t raise money because of federal election regulations.
The Clinton campaign doesn’t have paid staff or consultants, or a specific campaign manager for Israel (the Democrats Abroad regional chair for the Middle East and Europe, Merrill Oates, is based in Hungary and he said internal elections to officially fill positions in Israel had not been held in several years) or paid staff or consultants. Audrey Zada, its social media administrator and strategist, is a 27-year-old Israeli-American from Ohio who works on Holocaust studies at Israel’s Haifa University.
She says the campaign has about 150 volunteers, of whom 40-50 are active daily, and four core organizers including herself. It has held three general meetings with volunteers, four phone and email banking events, and about 20 registration events around Israel.
The Democrats have also intentionally not courted media attention; with limited resources, Zada said, they want to focus on voters. For journalists reporting on the campaigns in Israel, however, they’ve been notoriously difficult to reach and return calls, in contrast to the Republicans and Brot, who frequently invite the press to events and respond at any hour.
There has been some controversy over the Israeli Trump campaign’s funding, though. After its most recent event in Jerusalem, which was coordinated with the Trump campaign in America, several campaign finance experts questioned the legality of the donations, Haaretz reported (paywall). Zell and Brot declined to say how much money they’ve raised and who’s donated, though they said the backers don’t include Sheldon Adelson, an Israeli-American casino mogul and Republican backer. (On the other hand, Adelson’s Israeli newspaper, Yisrael Hayom, has fully supported Trump since he gained the nomination.)
Zell was at the Republican National Convention this year, where he supported a significant change to the party’s Israel platform: removing support for the two-state solution and instead deferring to Israel to determine negotiations, as many right-wing Israelis prefer. Zell, who lives in a West Bank settlement, is not worried about the support Trump receive from anti-Semites like former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. “You can’t blame Trump for who supports him,” he said, adding that he fears communists who support Clinton.
Back at the Trump voter registration in Jerusalem, Kyle Harris, 18, from Nevada, stopped to sign up—but said he plans to vote for Clinton, not Trump. “I just like the hat,” he said. “It’s cool.”