Approximately 120 countries allow overseas citizens to vote in national elections. Israel is not one of them. While this has not been a central issue in the past, it has now landed on the public agenda with Corona restrictions for inbound travel of Israelis found overseas. Why doesn’t Israel go along with almost all other democracies? And if there’s an injustice here, what could be done to alleviate it?
First, the raison d’etre for no absentee balloting (one very small exception: overseas Israeli diplomats can vote in the Israeli embassy, a no-brainer given that the country has sent them overseas and they are serving Israel in an official capacity). In one word: Zionism. The original meaning of the term was that only Jews who actually live in Zion can be considered Zionists – and by extension, only they should have the right to determine the country’s future. That underlying ideology was buttressed by early Zionism’s disdain for those who made Aliyah and then left the country for greener pastures: “yordim” – those who go “down”, in contradistinction to those who “went up” to reside in the Land of Israel (aliyah).
Citizens of other countries who reside outside their homeland’s borders do not carry such negative baggage. True, there might be a hint of the pejorative in the term “expatriate”, as in “formerly patriotic”, but they are not looked askance in the same way as were (and to a limited extent still are), Israeli yordim.
Another argument – not philosophical but rather informational – is that Israeli society and politics are so complex, that living outside the country renders comprehensibility regarding the issues exceedingly difficult. That certainly was the case in Israel’s first few decades, but hardly is convincing in the age of the internet, social media, and easy air travel.
Third, there’s the commonly accepted rule: “no representation without taxation”. Israeli expats residing overseas don’t have to pay any tax to Israel for income earned overseas (just for income derived in Israel). So if they don’t pay tax, why should they have the right to vote?
Finally, the Law of Return complicates the situation even more. For someone to become a citizen in other countries, they generally have to reside there for several years. Israel, as is well known, grants automatic citizenship to any Jew who makes Aliyah – literally at the airport upon arrival! For all sorts of reasons, a not inconsiderable number leave within months and return to their home country. The Law of Return that was designed to bring world Jewry closer to Israel, would also work as a boomerang if “short-stay citizens” were allowed to continue influencing the future of the country.
There a few pundits calling for universal overseas voting rights, but they are a distinct minority (at least within Israel). One interesting argument, technically correct but with little resonance among the Israeli public, is that there is one large population group outside of Israel’s official borders that gets to vote every election: the settlers in Judea & Samaria (the West Bank), not yet annexed to Israel as has been the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. But it is hard to see that specific case as serving any sort of “precedent” for extending the ballot overseas literally.
Having said all that, the absence of any possibility to vote overseas does negate a basic right of “bona fide” citizens. It is estimated that during every Israeli election, around 50,000 citizens are overseas on business or some pressing personal matter (e.g., family wedding, funeral etc.). Add to that thousands (perhaps a few tens of thousands) of Israeli students studying overseas – PhDs, post-docs, medical and dental – and the numbers start adding up into significance, electoral and civic.
What could realistically be done? For starters, enable all citizens who are physically in Israel up to two weeks before Election Day to cast a ballot. Second, enable an absentee vote to anyone going overseas during Election Day (whenever they leave Israel) who has resided in Israel proper for at least 300 days in the year prior to the election date. That could be rendered even more palatable by simultaneously barring Israeli citizens who have lived outside of Israel for more than two years from flying into Israel (OK) to vote (not OK). There are an estimated one to two thousand such citizens who fly in every year just for that!
In short, the basic principle of no absentee balloting will not be changed wholesale anytime in the foreseeable future. That doesn’t mean, however, that some patently unfair situations to actual resident-citizens can’t be ameliorated with a bit of typical Israeli out-of-the-box thinking.