Shirit Pankowsky
American-Israeli Traveling the World

Missing Out: The Election From Abroad

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Israel is gearing up to vote for the new Parliament on April 9. Israelis vote for parties, which translate into seats in the Parliament, so each individual vote holds equal weight. The issue is that I, like an indeterminate number of Israelis abroad, cannot vote.

As a dual citizen of the United States and of Israel, I hold two passports. I’m normally based out of Israel, but, for the next month, I’ll be in the United States. I pay taxes in two countries. I have pledged allegiance to the flag and sang the anthem of a 2000-year-old hope. I’ve participated at polls in both the US and in Israel. In the 2016 election I mailed my ballot from a tiny neighborhood post office in Haifa. But I won’t be able to vote for the party of my choice for the 21st Knesset (Parliament) of Israel.

There have been rumors in the last few months about implementing absentee ballots, but even if these are accurate, this won’t go into effect in time for the upcoming election. Diplomats, ambassadors, and other Israelis who are abroad on official government or military business are given the chance to cast their ballots at local embassies.

So, what about the rest of us?

There are stigmas about Israelis who move to another country: the term in Hebrew translates as “going down.” Many Israelis become so frustrated with politics, finances, or social issues that they feel their only option is to leave. A huge population of Israelis are under the impression that the United States, for instance, is the best place to find financial success. The government claims that these Israelis are not representative of the country and therefore are not allowed to vote unless they come to do so in person, to which they are welcome.

One such person who agrees with this decision is Revital Ganzi, who moved to the United States from Israel in 2010. She lives with her husband and daughter in Knoxville, Tennessee.

“I chose not to be in Israel, and there is a price for that. I don’t pay taxes in Israel, I don’t volunteer in Israel. My husband doesn’t serve in the reserves,” Ganzi said. “Not all the Israelis that live outside of Israel think like me… Just so you know. To many [people], they just don’t care.”

Ganzi explained that quite a few Israelis in the US continue to receive invitations to vote. Those with the means will make the trip, while others seek out those with opposing opinions so that neither of them has to fly to Israel. As far as the fact that diplomats are given the opportunity, she believes that practice should come to an end, and they should fly home like everyone else.

But when asked if the block to participate in elections impedes on her Israeli identity in any way, Ganzi told me that nothing can change the fact that she was born in Israel and lived there for the first thirty years of her life.

“I don’t think that because I can’t vote, my opinion isn’t taken into consideration. I, personally, believe in continuous actions for Israel and not just during elections,” said Ganzi. “I concern myself with representing Israel respectfully [and] consistently when I am outside of Israel. This, in my eyes, has more value than the ability to vote.”

Even if you don’t factor in those that have permanently relocated, Israelis love to travel. It’s a tradition to go on a “big trip” after the army: young Israelis regularly go to South America, India, or Thailand for several months at a time before coming home to start university or a career. In addition, seeing as round-trip flights between Tel Aviv and Europe can be as inexpensive as a few hundred shekels (about $100 USD), you’ll often find Israelis spending a long weekend in Amsterdam or Cyprus.

But the Israelis that will be out of the country for any reason on that Tuesday will relinquish their opportunity to make their opinion count.

U.S.-born Eitan Berman moved to Israel in 2008 and became a citizen in 2009. He moved back to the US in 2014 to live in New York, but keeps up with Israeli politics and visits often. In January of 2019, when the surprise election was announced, he decided to start a GoFundMe to pay for a trip to Israel. El Al (the most prominent Israeli airline) offers a special deal on nonstop flights in honor of elections, and he didn’t want to miss the opportunity.

“I felt that it was the first time in many years that there has been a real chance to bring down the extreme right-wing government, and specifically Bibi Netanyahu,” he explained. “We have a chance for change, and I would regret it if I stayed home and we got a ruling coalition that is even more extreme than the current one.”

Berman knows which bloc he will be supporting, but hasn’t decided which party to vote for. “I likely will make the decision the day of,” he confessed. This hasn’t deterred him from making the trip.

So far, Berman has raised $733 of $800 he needs to cover the flight from New York to Tel Aviv, including $300 alone from an anonymous donor. When the campaign reached $500, he went ahead and bought the ticket.

Once on Israeli soil, every other part of the process is streamlined and simple. Any Israeli citizen, of any ethnic group, religion, or political belief, aged 18 or older is automatically registered to vote. Special arrangements are made for those with disabilities, in hospitals, on military bases, and even in prisons. All you have to do is show up with identification, place your paper ballot in the sealed envelope, and put that in the official blue-and-white box.

The Parliament website states that we have “The right to elect and be elected: every Israeli citizen who is at least 18 years old has the right to vote.”

Other resources, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, claim that voting must be held on Israeli soil. The fact that diplomats and other officials vote in Israeli embassies around the world sets a precedent for the argument that, at least for this purpose, sovereignty lies with the country of the embassy. Unfortunately, nobody’s arguing. Embassies are good for many things, but voting while abroad is not one of them.

I don’t need immunity, I just want to vote.

About the Author
Soon after making aliyah in 2013, I served in the IDF as a combat soldier in the Artillery Corps. While continuing to serve in the reserves, I am a language-loving travel blogger based in Israel.
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