This is the fourth American presidential election cycle that Flemish radio journalist Els Aeyels has covered for VRT, a Belgian public broadcasting company comparable to NPR.
But this time, things are markedly different.
“We have the feeling that it has lasted forever,” Aeyels said during a stop in Pittsburgh last week. “This time so much has happened. Every day there is some kind of crisis, something that explodes or someone that explodes, that it looks like it has been dragging on forever.”
Aeyels was here to interview a panel of four local Jews, assembled by Jewish Chronicle CEO and Publisher Jim Busis, on their election views. Her interview with the Pittsburgh panel was edited and aired this week as an eight-minute segment that includes an earlier, similar interview she conducted with a panel of Muslims in Dearborn, Mich.
Aeyels had been touring the country for two weeks, giving Europeans the inside scoop on this unusual contest for the presidency.
“I feel a very big lack of enthusiasm for either candidate,” she observed. “If I compare it to other election cycles, everywhere I went there were lawn signs and bumper stickers. I don’t see them this year. It’s so much less than other election cycles. And everyone I talk to apologizes to me for everything that’s going on. I’ve never had that before.”
While Europeans were at first “laughing their asses off” at the prospect of a Donald Trump candidacy, it is no longer funny, she said.
“At first everybody thought Donald Trump was a joke, but when he became serious, we stopped laughing,” she explained. “I think it’s still fascinating for Europeans, everything that is happening here. But pretty much everybody says, ‘We’ve had our belly full of it.’ It’s enough. But I don’t think that is just a European feeling.”
Compared to the elections of 2008 and 2012, she said, this election stands in high contrast. The candidates “are very old, and not very inspiring,” and while, from a European perspective, American elections generally “are very dirty,” this year things are worse.
“It doesn’t make America look very good,” she said.
During her two-week jaunt, Aeyels did reports from swing states, “or states more or less swing states,” including several in the Southwest, as well as Michigan, Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Her programs covered several themes: immigration; women’s issues, including the cost of day care and the wage gap; gun control; free trade; the candidates’ lack of popularity; and international relationships.
She decided to convene panels of Jews and Muslims in the Midwest to examine opinions on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
“I thought what affects Europeans most — which is my audience — is the crisis in the Middle East in general, and then the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the war in Syria more specifically,” she said. “I thought an interesting way to cover that might be to talk to American Jews and American Muslims. Especially I wanted to do something with Muslims, because they are also in the center of a big attack by one of the presidential candidates, so that’s why I chose to do it like that.”
The Middle East is of primary concern to Europeans, Aeyels said, because of its geographic proximity as well as the large Muslim population that now resides in Europe.
“There are a lot of Muslims living in Europe, and especially the past year and a half, we’ve had a lot of refugees coming in from the Middle East, especially from Syria and Iraq, but also Palestinians,” she explained. “We’ve always had Palestinian refugees in Europe. So it’s a big hot issue in Europe, this whole crisis over there.
“And in Europe, pretty much everybody is convinced that this whole crisis region of the Middle East is never going to be resolved if the Israeli/Palestinian conflict doesn’t get solved.”
Members of the Jewish panel that Aeyels interviewed in Pittsburgh did not share the opinion that a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a prerequisite to solving other crises in the Middle East, Aeyels noted.
“But in Europe, that’s the general feel,” she said. “You have to find a solution to [the] problem, because if we don’t, there will always be animosity between Muslims on one side and Jews on the other, and that’s not good for stability in the Middle East.”
Muslims in Europe feel victimized, she said, and that is due in large part to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. That feeling of victimization contributes to the instability of the entire region and fuels other conflicts that appear to have nothing to do with Israel, including the massacres of the Syrian civil war.
Aeyels struggled to coherently articulate why conflicts in which Muslims slaughter other Muslims could be traced to the Palestinian issue, offering as an explanation: “We do believe that peace between Palestinians and Israel could help solve other crises out there, because they wouldn’t have a common enemy anymore, as they do now. And I get that what’s happening in Syria is something that’s really different, that it’s got nothing to do with Israel as such. But it would make it easier, I think, to get Muslims out of their feeling of being a victim, which is how a lot of them feel in Europe.”
While the Muslim panel and the Jewish panel differed in their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Aeyels said, they did share some positions in common.
“They were both critical of the Obama administration and the way they handled conflicts in the Middle East,” she said.
“And as to the way they are going to vote on Nov. 8, it was also similar.”
All members of the Muslim panel, and three out of the four members of the Jewish panel, were planning on casting their ballots for Hillary Clinton. The Muslims mostly had been supporters of Bernie Sanders, she said, but are now voting for Clinton, “because of course they don’t want Trump to become president.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.