Let the Diaspora Vote

To keep Israel as a Jewish & Democratic state rollout the franchise to the diaspora.

Israel is falling off the rails. After its 5th election in 3 years, and almost 3 decades on from the Oslo accords, it’s brought to power a man who likes to dress up as Baruch Goldstein. While this event does not emerge in a vacuum it should be abundantly clear that something has gone very wrong when the Jewish homeland elects a figure toxic not only to most Jews but human decency. I believe there’s a clear solution to this, it’s time to roll out the franchise to the Jewish diaspora.

Understandably many Israelis might feel this is paternalistic, who are we in the diaspora to dictate the policies of a state that we don’t live in, it’s not us who the rockets fall on. We don’t partake in your communal life, and aside from the odd vacation or birthright trip, we don’t walk your streets. To this I say, we’ve danced around what the role of the Diaspora is to Israel for its entire 75-year history, it’s time to settle it.

Israel’s actions have consequences for us too. Whenever conflict occurs in the region there is a notable rise in anti-semitic incidents in Europe, a trend that may be making its way to America. To state clearly and equivocally, actions of an Israeli government do not justify anti-semitism under any circumstance (and may not reflect the will of a good percentage of the current Israeli electorate). Just as there is no excuse for a rise in anti-asian hate if you disagree with the actions of the Chinese state, or islamophobia if you disagree with the policies of Saudi Arabia, so too with the Jews and Israel. Nevertheless, it happens, because of course it does, and as the country that is supposed to represent us Jews globally, actions as they will reverberate for the diaspora must be considered. 

However, in my view, any threats to our physical safety pale in comparison to the harm to our souls from the election of a government that includes G’vir, Smotrich, and the rest of the Kahanist wretched. While we are not a monolith, the majority of the diaspora sees our fate as intertwined with yours. It’s been said that when we in the diaspora look at you, we are looking at ourselves in the mirror. With the election of Kahanists to government, you’re not just a shande far di goyim (making us look bad in front of the Goyim), you’re making it hard to look in the mirror. 

We trust you to safeguard the centre of Jewish life, and yet you’ve let this poison blossom. Look, the betrayal hurts all the more because god dammit we love you, you are ארץ ישראל.  We just want what’s best for you and we’re terrified of the path you’re headed down.  

You’re your own entity and your culture will look different than ours. The primary unit of political significance in western liberalism is the individual.  Israel’s society is a different combination of modernity and tradition with greater emphasis on the community over the self. This has the potential to be a good thing.  There’s more of a sense of the collective, of the obligations we have to something beyond the self that I feel we have lost somewhat in the individualist west.

We get that you grow up in a different world with different security imperatives.  We understand you have neighbors like the Iranian regime and Hamas that label their rockets with promises for your annihilation and spew their airwaves with the worst in anti-semitic bile.  We haven’t had to send our entire nation’s youth into harm’s way and service in order to ensure our survival for several generations.  However, what good is winning the war if you lose your soul.

At a time of rising global anti-semitism, we are grateful for what you offer us.  We know we have a home with you if need be (though that may not always be so given Ben Gvir’s ilk’s view on what constitutes a “real Jew”).  However, the election of a party to government that embraces authoritarianism, racism, homophobia, and overall Kahanist political agenda makes us wonder what kind of home we’d be coming to.

We are your other half, this gives us the right, obligation, and duty to speak up when we feel like you are losing your way. Besides what’s more Israeli/Jewish than saying exactly what’s on your mind, direct (and at times brutal) emotional honesty is a hallmark of us both.

Now that the feelings part of the essay is done, let’s get solutions-oriented.

If our destinies are tied to yours, if you are the Jewish state and we are the Jewish community then it follows we should have a say in the state that represents us.

Let us vote in the knesset.  

While I write this idea out of fear for Israel’s’ present, it does not come out of nowhere.  There is significant precedence for diaspora enfranchisement in Israel’s past, present, and need for the future of the country. Even before the state of Israel, the idea was floated in the early Zionist congresses of letting diaspora Jewry vote in an eventual Jewish state.

Further several countries have extended their franchise to include members of their “nation” that live beyond their borders. While Viktor Orban’s Hungary is usually an example of what NOT to do, Hungary successfully rolled out the right to vote to its diaspora in 2011.

Letting the diaspora vote also has precedence in present Israeli politics, it’s been suggested by Yisrael Beytenu a secular right-wing party, even Netanyahu was apparently open to the idea.

Look, the secret to any relationship is communication.  Let’s talk this out. What could this look like? It’s understandable to ask what skin we would have in the game. Maybe we would agree to take on a certain amount of tax obligations for the right to the franchise, and in addition, complete a remote Ulpan.  Maybe the right to inhabit Israel as a foreign-born Jew should be tied to national service, but to vote should extend to the entire Jewish community.

Any rollout of the franchise to diaspora Jews should of course also be optional, in order to avoid the canard of Jewish dual loyalty.  Not all Jews feel a connection to Israel, and that’s okay, but for those who do, a pathway should be made open to shape our collective destiny.

And it’s that future where the idea of diaspora enfranchisement could be such an exciting concept.  While it may have made sense to restrict voting to those living within Israel at the time of the state’s founding, David Ben Gurion didn’t have Zoom. Zionism has always been a radical political idea, and the best nations are collective enterprises that seek evolution. If Israel’s founding was the radical political experiment of the last century, perhaps its re-invention for the digital age is exactly the reinvigoration needed at a time when democracy globally is at risk.

On that point of democracy, supporters of Palestinian rights (of which I consider myself one) might point out correctly, that it’s unfair to give an entire other population a franchise in the governing entity that affects their lives before them.  It is hoped, however, that the enfranchisement of diaspora Jewry, the largest population of which in the U.S. polls more liberally than the U.S. mean, would vote in parties that would end the occupation and support a 2 state solution.  

Alternatively, providing diaspora Jewry the franchise would open up new possibilities beyond the stalled two-state status quo.  Personally I think the EU model best for Palestine/Israel, in that it would allow both the Jewish and Palestinian nations to pursue self-determination.  However, democratic one-state solutions have historically been part of Zionist dialogues. The original Zionist text Herzel’s Altneuland envisioned a joint Jewish-Arab society, its capital in the mixed city of Haifa.  Extending the franchise to the diaspora would provide security for those who fear losing Israel’s Jewish character, to further extend it to the Palestinian populations of the West Bank.  One set of laws, applied equally to all peoples living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, and representation for all peoples with a stake in Israel.

By letting the diaspora vote we can secure Israel’s future as a democratic and Jewish state.

Extending Israeli identity beyond its fixed territorial boundaries might also be necessary for the long-term survival of its culture.  Israel is unique for many reasons but one that stands out is birthrates.  Conversations comparing birth rates between Israelis and Arabs can quickly get disturbing, to put it mildly.  Leaders from both peoples have spoken of weaponizing their populations’ birth rates to “out breed” the other.  Israel, though, has stood out amongst its contemporaries in the west in that it is one of the few democracies to maintain above-replacement-level fertility rates.  In fact some have commented aspirationally (though I think this highly unlikely) that Israeli birth rates will give the country a population the size of Poland (~38 million) by 2085.  For those with half a brain, the obvious problem is that a country the size of New Jersey might have challenges hosting a population 4 times its current 9 million.  If population growth did reach 38 million, then by 2085 Israel would have a per capita density *counting only the land on the west of the greenline of ~1870/km, below Monaco’s but above Singapore’s. That is not sustainable.  

Already Israel suffers from one of the most overpriced housing markets globally, and water stress that is disproportionately felt by Palestinian communities. Israelis (like most everyone else) rank cost of living as their greatest concern, an issue that can only intensify with greater stress on resources. Likely birth rates would taper off under greater stress of cost of living (it’s hard to raise kids plural in a New York apartment). Still differences in Israeli culture around raising children mean a population increase is far more likely than a population decrease this century.  

Increasing populations will put stress on limited resources like housing and water, encouraging out-migration. Today it’s necessary to be physically present in Israel to vote, but to keep a growing future diaspora in the Israeli tent opening up the franchise will be an increasingly necessary solution. While you’re rolling out the franchise to Israeli’s living abroad, why not go the next step and include Jews living abroad.

Going forward it might be better to view Israel as a flywheel, a place where the majority of the world’s Jewish population goes to re-establish community and ties with their identity.  Where the world’s Jews have a stake, a voice, and perhaps live for a time, but basic resource limitations likely prevent the majority of us from living permanently.

In 1898 Herzl wrote in Altneuland of protagonists arriving in a future Jewish state when a religious extremist rabbi runs on a political platform of hatred against its Arab citizens. The rabbis’ platform a mirror image of the Religious Zionist party’s goals, that Israel belongs exclusively to the Jews and that its Arab citizens should be stripped of their franchise.

In Altneuland this rise in far-right Jewish extremism is defeated, and Herzl would weep if it is not in the state he devoted his life to bring into existence.  It would not be Herzl’s Israel anymore.  

Instead of retreating from democracy Israel should expand it, and reinvent it for the 21st century.

While Diaspora voting rights may seem utopian and far-fetched now, well …

If you will it it is no dream.

About the Author
Jonas Goldman is an environmental policy researcher, think tanker, and aspiring NJB. He received his received his MPA is environmental science and policy from Columbia. Jonas has worked on policy for groups such as the Smart Prosperity Institute, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and within the Canadian Parliament. He prays for peace in the Middle East and for the Leaf's to win the cup in his lifetime. All opinions are the authors own.
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