A trickle of Israelis living abroad has begun arriving in Israel in the days prior to Tuesday’s election, in order to cast ballots for the next Knesset.
Unlike the United States, which allows its expatriate community abroad to vote in local, state and national elections, Israelis residing outside of the Jewish state are legally barred from exercising their sovereign franchise.
Martin Berger of Brighton, England, is one of them. A sales manager for a media company, he first came to Israel in 1988 as part of a crew filming a movie about the 40th anniversary of Israel’s founding. While he never resided here full time, he obtained citizenship and visits Israel on a regular basis, sometimes as often as once every two weeks.
“I have been a citizen for a quarter of a century but unfortunately haven’t yet lived here, but I have voted in every election,” he told The Jerusalem Post.
Berger, who is voting for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said that while he personally does not know other Israelis abroad who are coming to vote, he “has heard of a dozen others who are.”
Avi Rubel, the co-founder of Honeymoon Israel, which organizes trips here for newly married couples, said that he flew in from the US because this race “feels like the most important election I can think of in my lifetime, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
While he wouldn’t say for whom he is voting, he admitted that he thinks that “a lot of Israel’s citizens, including myself, are looking for change.
That’s the feeling I get in the air here, and I want to help be part of that.”
The 42-year-old from Brooklyn added that he understands why Israel does not allow expats to vote abroad.
“I think Israel is still a startup as a country. As a start-up it’s important that citizens are here taking an active role on the ground,” he surmised.
“Maybe in the future, when it’s more established, there will be another way to do it, but I actually think it’s a good thing. I may live here again. I’ve always felt lucky to be a citizen of two great democracies, and there is nothing like voting to be a part of a democracy.”
Born in Kibbutz Negba in the South and raised in Ra’anana, Tal Harris moved to Berlin with his wife several months ago, where she now works and he is studying for a PhD.
He had been abroad during previous election cycles and could not afford to come back to cast his ballot. But “in these elections, I feel there’s even more at stake and that anyone eligible to vote must do so.”
“I live abroad but my heart is still in Israel. My family, my friends, the language and the landscapes I love – these are all part of Israel. I can’t stand by, seeing it deteriorate – particularly as it has been in the past six years under Netanyahu,” the Zionist Union supporter asserted.
“I was surprised that at least five friends of mine are taking long, expensive flights to fulfill their basic democratic right to vote. Some friends are flying from Paris and from Washington, DC. My friend Adva is even taking a break from an Israeli aid project she’s leading in the Philippines. I think that many Israelis who work or study temporarily abroad are still very connected to Israel, especially considering how easy keeping in touch is these days (cheap flights, international phone calls, Internet, etc.). However, it’s not only how easy it is, but also how important it is to come now to vote.”
The electoral system is “anachronistic,” he opined, explaining that while in the past new immigrants would stay in Israel permanently, the world has changed and this has to be reflected in the law.
“People move across borders constantly, and that includes Israelis, of course. I think that voting in the embassy or by sending a letter from abroad should be allowed to Israelis who live, work, or study up to five years from their day of migration.”
Another expatriate coming home to vote is Rabbi Moshe Azman, the head of a large Chabad hassidic community in Kiev, Ukraine.
“I come for every election because I attach importance to the matter and try to do what I can to change and influence the direction. The nation is in danger and everyone is obligated to” get involved, he explained.
“It was important to the Rebbe of Lubavitch. It’s a matter of the land, people and Torah of Israel,” he added.
While groups like iVoteIsrael work to get out the vote among American expats living here, urging them to vote in US elections, there are no similar initiatives pushing Israelis abroad to return to vote, explained Matt Solomon, the group’s director.
Sagi Balasha, the CEO of the Israeli-American Council, a group representing expatriates in the US, told the Post that his organization “doesn’t take any action to encourage people to go to Israel and vote.
Asked why Israelis have historically been resistant to the idea of citizens voting abroad, Dr. Ofer Kenig, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, explained that among Americans the number of eligible voters living abroad is not very large. By contrast, the number of such voters constitutes a much higher percentage of the electorate in Israel, and “this is especially concerning because of the Law of Return, which gives automatic Israeli citizenship to every Jew.”
“I think for many Israelis here, the thought of their life being decided and determined by the voting of Israeli citizens who will not be affected by this and live abroad… is not right or just.”
Kenig suggested that the law should be changed “to allow Israelis residing abroad temporarily to have a vote.”
“The challenge,” he said, “is to build a mechanism... that would differentiate between these types of Israelis.”