By Elliot Jager ~
When my Labor Zionist cousins made aliya from New York City in the 1950s to an agricultural moshav outside Raanana, they cast off comfort, kin and familiarity for the yoke of pioneering Zionism. It was inevitable that they’d lose touch with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Joe DiMaggio’s love life and the fate of the Third Avenue El. Just getting hold of a delayed copy of the Herald Tribune would have been a coup. And the thought of casting an absentee ballot in the presidential contest between Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson did not even cross their minds.
Nowadays, Americans living in Israel will find voting in the 2012 presidential elections no trickier than keeping up with season five of Mad Men. As an ex-New Yorker, I am able to apply to vote via a Federal website or through my local board of elections. It seems I am eligible to vote in municipal contests and, for all I know, in school board races. Having downloaded and filled out an application, all I need do is affix my signatures and airmail the forms to the Board of Elections on Ninth Avenue. Anticipating approval of my submission, the board has already emailed to wish me “a great voting experience this year!”
Filing overseas tax returns is a legal obligation, holding a second passport may simply be prudent, and feeling devotion to America is only natural. But as someone who has no expectations of returning to live in the United States I see voting as an exploitation rather than an exercise of my rights, and as a betrayal of my Zionist bona fides. Did Herzl and Jabotinsky go to their early graves so that I could exercise my right to vote in America?
That’s not the way Kory Bardash of Republicans Abroad sees it. A strong America, he argues, helps secure a strong and independent Israel. “By helping to elect officials that understand and support Israel’s struggle against an ever increasing hostile world that looks to delegitimize it, those that vote in the U.S. election can help support [the Zionist] dream.” Advocates of absentee balloting also argue that with taxation comes representation. Ex-pats living in London have no compunction about voting in U.S. elections so why should those living in Tel Aviv feel differently? Israel’s 300,000 Americans make it the fifth largest expat community, according to Bardash. And isn’t it true that many maintain deep connections through family, friends and frequent visits. Moreover, 115 countries allow absentee voting and they can’t all be wrong.
All true, but Israel doesn’t allow absentee balloting. And there is no groundswell of sentiment to give 500,000 ex-pat Israelis (about 10 percent of the population) whose lives are permanently centered in America, Russia or Germany the right to vote.
On the other hand, Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser did lately direct a quasi-public think tank to explore whether and to what extent to enfranchise Israelis abroad. He is weighing one option in particular that – if endorsed by the cabinet and passed by the Knesset – would extend limited voting rights to some 42,000 Israelis on a one-off basis who have been abroad for no more than four years among them university students, post-army trekkers, visiting academics, business people, tourists and airline crews. Given Israel’s size that could be enough, cumulatively, to influence the outcome of two Knesset seats. Historically, however, any reforms have been opposed by strange bedfellows: the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, some national-religious factions, the Arab bloc, and the leftist Haaretz newspaper.
While sensible reforms extending the vote to those temporarily out of the country could make it through the Knesset, no one expects the franchise to be handed broadly to ex-Israelis permanently living overseas. The consensus seems to be that those who have permanently made their lives elsewhere have ceded their say in life-and-death decisions affecting the Jewish state. Plainly, for ex-pat U.S. citizens the circumstances are quite different. Some Israeli-Americans will vote out of a sense of patriotism; of those many will weigh to the moral dilemma of exercising power without personally having to pay the consequences. There will be those who will not cast absentee ballots out of lethargy. And still others will consciously refrain from voting because for them answering the Zionist call for the ingathering of the Jewish people in Eretz Israel necessitates, perforce, abdication of involvement in the political affairs of one’s former homeland.
Elliot Jager is a contributing editor to Jewish Ideas Daily. This article first appeared on his blog, The Jager File (www.elliotjager.blogspot.com)