There is a great public service announcement making the rounds in the days before the upcoming national elections. The essence of the message is This Time – We All Vote.
It is terrific – comic, engaging, with all of our favorite Israeli actors, comedians, singers and media stars. Exceedingly well done, it plays on our national emotions and our sense of belonging and civic duty. It is captivating and funny. It tugs on our collective heartstrings.
So, why does it feel a little bit like a slap in the face to me? Because I cannot vote. By law.
As we call upon everyone to exercise their right to vote this Tuesday, let’s not forget, as we ramp up to the elections, that there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis abroad who would dearly love to vote, who are not allowed to.
Israelis like me and like you, who served in the army, who carry Israeli passports, who continue to pay taxes, whose mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and children are in Israel, who are connected to Israel with every fiber of their being, who regularly spend time in Israel, who deeply care about the outcome of this election and are passionately invested in the future of the State of Israel. We – some half a million of us – are citizens of the State of Israel who will not be permitted to cast their ballots this Tuesday for any of the 34 (gulp) parties who are contending for Knesset seats.
If prisoners can vote, with special arrangements made for that purpose pursuant to Section 116 of the Knesset Elections Law [Incorporated Version] 5729 – 1969, then why can’t Israelis abroad? Why can’t a student or recently discharged combat soldier who is traveling abroad vote? Why is it that an Israeli diplomat can vote, but an Israeli reporter on assignment in Washington, DC cannot cast a ballot? Why isn’t the right to vote available to a to a representative of Teva in Europe or to an Israeli attorney who is honing his legal skills at a top New York firm? Why is it that a member of the merchant marine can vote, but an El-Al pilot whose flight takes him out of the country on Election Day cannot? The arbitrary nature of the electoral laws that require physical presence in the country on Election Day for the vast majority of Israel’s citizens demands some serious thought and reform.
In this day and age of global mobility, does the fact that a person is physically not in the country on Election Day truly mean that he or she should be deprived of the right to stand up and be counted with the rest of the nation?
Yes, the law mandates that an Israeli abroad can come to Israel to cast their ballot, but how practical is that, in many cases? I was in Israel less than three weeks ago, and will be back in just a couple of months – I am always going back and forth.
Had it only been feasible, I would have made another trip, for the sole purpose of sliding that all-important piece of paper into the ballot box. But why should I have to, when my vote could be so readily facilitated from anywhere in the world? (And what is the ongoing purpose of paper ballots, anyway? It is 2013. By one estimate, replacing paper ballots with a digital vote would save the Israeli treasury more than half a billion New Israeli Shekels per year.)
I have some real misgivings about writing this post, as I have a rather good idea of what awaits me, in terms of comments and talk-backs. There is a knee-jerk reaction that instantly denigrates Israelis living abroad as avaricious or having abandoned the greater, national good in order to seek a more comfortable life elsewhere. It’s time to drop the judgmental attitude. Everyone has their own set of circumstances.
By saying that we can’t vote, the State is, in essence, saying that we are no longer Israelis.
Is that in our national interest?
And so I ask: What makes us Israelis? Who determines whether or not we count as Israelis? How long do we have to be outside of Israel to qualify as “no longer Israeli”? Under what circumstances? And why should half a million Israelis abroad be looking at this election from afar, without any possibility of participation?
When we talk about electoral reform – something that is so badly needed in Israel – don’t forget about us, the many fine and deeply committed Israelis abroad who would like nothing more than to exercise our most fundamental civic duty this Tuesday.
Don’t be so quick to judge us, or to advocate the denial of our basic right as citizens of a great democracy.
Living abroad does not make us lesser than.