In Florida last month, Mr. Yitzhak “Bougie” Herzog, chairman of the Jewish Agency (JA), surprised his audience at the Israeli American Council (IAC) conference. He said that Israelis living outside of Israel should have the right to vote in the national elections in Israel. In one speech, he killed two established positions: 1) He all but abandoned the goal of aliyah, and 2) he shifted focus to strengthening Jewish communities outside of Israel.
The JA’s position even surprised Israeli-Americans who until now have been looked upon as the “weak link,” the materialistic men and women who left Israel in search of a more comfortable lifestyle. PM Yitzhak Rabin, never one to mince words, had no patience for them, referring to them as “weak wimps.” How the tune has changed? Today, the chairman of the Jewish Agency not only supports Israelis living abroad, but also wants to give them the ballot.
My knee-jerk reaction was negative. In a word, I strongly objected. How can someone be part of the decision-making process when he won’t be immediately and directly affected by it? Can you imagine an Israeli sitting in his suburban home and voting for/against Israeli policy that may lead to a war? How can someone vote to risk the lives of others while he and his immediate family live across the Atlantic? Even if we put aside life or death matters, can you imagine an Israeli living in Berlin deciding about new Israeli tax policy? Should one be allowed to cast a vote on a decision that affects others but not himself? Or worse, can you imagine Israelis living abroad promoting policies that benefit them while harming local Israelis? Consider what happened last year. The Israeli Ministry of the Interior decided to allow local municipalities to charge significantly higher property taxes (up to 100%) on vacation homes. It is a well-known fact that these homes are mostly owned by foreigners. Of course, no expat can be counted on to vote against his own financial interest.
In order to discuss the JA’s motion, we should begin by asking what we expect from Israelis living outside of Israel. What are their obligations and rights? If we expect Israelis abroad to educate their kids to feel connected to Israel and volunteer to serve in the IDF (as lone soldiers), doesn’t it make sense that they should also be part of the public dialogue when it comes to the defense of the country? If we expect Israeli students abroad to support Israel on campus and fight BDS, doesn’t it make sense that they should also be part of the decision-making in terms of Israeli foreign policy? Finally, we do want Israelis to stay connected. We do want them to keep visiting Israel. Maybe they could offer much in terms of their opinions, opinions that need to grapple with Israel’s major problems such as housing prices and taxation.
After we answer these questions, we should also take the time to discuss whether Israelis should be treated differently than Jews living outside of Israel. What is the reason for this distinction (let’s call it a negative bias)? Maybe the vote can be given according to the years spent outside Israel. Maybe those having served in the IDF should be permitted to vote?
My conclusion is that until we have clear answers to all these questions (and we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg), then the status quo should be preserved. Clearly for now, only Israelis living in Israel should have the right to vote in the Israeli elections.