Earlier this month, The Abraham Initiatives organized mock elections and debate with over 200 Arab students at Mekif High School in Kfar Qasim. The debate took place with four members from the Knesset, representing four different parties. The students, many of whom are at voting age for the first time, eagerly listened to what the MKs had to say. They confidently challenged their ideas and rushed to vote when the debate commenced. This event came at a time when tensions felt high – Israel was heading into its third election within one year and President Trump recently released “the deal of the century”.
While working for The Abraham Initiatives, I have quickly learned about low voter turnout rates among Arab citizens. There is a feeling of disconnect living in a Jewish state. The Nation-State Law has heightened this feeling by downgrading Arabic from its previous status as an official language and does not recognize the existence of non-Jewish groups. Many Arab voters also feel their voices are not represented in most Jewish parties and are met with deep misunderstanding. There has been an extreme effort to mobilize Arab voters for this election, in hopes of gaining more seats in the Knesset and pushing issues within Arab society to the forefront. The most compelling part of the event was hearing the concerns from the students and learning that these sentiments live within the younger Arab population.
President Trump’s release of “the deal of the century” has made this election feel more divisive. “The deal of the century” is an attempt at forming a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. One of the most contested aspects of the deal is the remapping of the West Bank. This would make many Arab towns inside Israel today, and its residents, part of Palestine. Every Arab Israeli living in this area would lose their Israeli citizenship and the parties that get voted into office could determine whether it is enacted. This raises the stakes of the Arab vote because most Arab citizens of Israel are against this component of the deal. Many believe “the deal of the century” was released at this specific time to garner support for both Prime Minister Netanyahu who is facing inditement and for President Trump who was facing impeachment at the time of these events.
At this time, America is going through its election period with the Democratic Primary and is also struggling with voter turnout among youth and minorities. One of the main goals of Bernie Sanders’ campaign is to mobilize young voters. Although he garnered the majority support from this voting block, young voters are currently not showing up to the polls in the numbers the Sanders campaign expected. After attending the mock election in Kfar Qasim, it made me question what lengths America is going to educate youth about politics.
One common feeling that exists between Americans and Israelis is that their vote does not matter. This feeling has existed in America for a long time due to voter suppression but is new to Israeli society. Election Day is a national holiday in Israel, which encourages voting, but three elections in one year have caused voting exhaustion and hopelessness. As an outsider in Israel and with elections back home, it feels I am in between two worlds that I deeply care about but can’t partake in. In Israel, I wish to vote not on my own opinions, but for the people I have met here who don’t feel represented. In America, I wish to vote because it’s the only thing I can do in my absence, even if it feels my vote has little power.
The divide between the left and right is rapidly growing in both countries, with little understanding between the two. Voting is one step to having more diverse voices within government but it does not stop there. The lack of unity within society is as harmful as not voting. The center has been dwindling and communication between people who disagree feels scarce. Israel and America are in a fragile place – where only a few voices are represented and the risk of both governments becoming more extremist is at its height. It is hard to separate the two countries from one another when both governments are leading their people to a place many do not want to go but feel too disempowered to fight it.
Before coming to Israel, I felt hopeless about these divides within society and discouraged by the general lack of hope and frustration with government. I was surprised that these key issues in America also exist in Israel but for different reasons. Slowly through working for The Abraham Initiatives, I’ve learned tangible ways to make change that has momentum and the ability to stimulate growth within society. The mock elections in Kfar Qasim is one of the many programs The Abraham Initiatives is running to stimulate voting within the Arab community and to lessen the divide between Arabs and Jews. In the third election, Arab Israeli parties won 15 seats in the Knesset, making them the third-largest party in Israel and recommended Benny Gantz as Prime Minister. This is the first time the Arab parties have recommended someone since Yitzhak Rabin in 1992. In this historic moment, it is hard to ignore that change can happen even during divisive moments like these.