NEW YORK – Gabi Mor does not vote in Israeli elections and believes he shouldn’t. Mor left Israel 25 years ago and created a life in New York. What right does he have to cast his lot in local and national Israeli politics?
Isaac Hoffman came to the United States in 1968 for school and sought American citizenship when circumstances kept him here. But he carries a deep emotional connection to Israel and feels strongly that Israeli citizens – especially those who have contributed to society – should be allowed to vote from abroad.
The conflicting views characterize the mixed bag of opinions among Israelis living abroad regarding Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s bill to afford them the right to vote in Knesset elections.
“It goes back to the question,” said Uri Cohen, an assistant professor at Columbia University, “Who does the state belong to? What is its goal? What is it supposed to do?”
Cohen, a dual citizen himself, said Netanyahu’s bill was the latest chapter in a decades-long struggle in Israel between its local citizens and the state as an expression of the Jewish people.
Nonetheless, there are strong feelings on both sides.
“There are a great number of Israelis abroad who feel that they are completely detached by not having the opportunity to vote,” said Hoffman, a professor of Hebrew at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “People have to get used to the idea that Israelis who live abroad have a stake in the state and they should have a right to vote.”
Hoffman said it was wrong to assume that Israelis living abroad had denounced their connection to Israel, when many had moved for school, work, the economy, or other circumstances.
“I feel that somebody who has contributed to Israeli society, as so many people did, has the right to vote,” he said.
Hoffman himself sought dual US-Israel citizenship after he had children, and he grappled with the decision to do so.
At first, he recalled, “I said no, I have a country.” But, he went on, “life circumstances caused me to stay.”
Mor, however, feels that his time away from Israel has taken away his right to vote.
“Because we are here in the United States, we don’t have the right to vote,” he said. “Many decisions are life-and-death in Israel, so I think that I don’t have the right to decide for the Israelis who live in Israel,” he said.
If given the opportunity, Mor said, he would not vote.
“I don’t want to impose my vote on somebody in Israel,” he said.
Nurit, an Israeli living in New York for more than four years who declined to give her last name, said she would vote, despite being opposed to the bill.
“The moment you leave Israel and you decide to live abroad, you forgo your decision, in my opinion, to decide who should be in government,” she said.
But she said she would vote if given the chance.
“Other people will vote, so that will skew the vote, so I have to voice my opinion once I’m entitled to it,” Nurit said. If that happened, she added, she would probably speak to her parents, who still live in Israel, and vote alongside them to strengthen their choice.
“It’s easy to sit here and say, ‘This should be done and that should be done.’ You’re sitting far away and you’re not living it day to day,” she said. “If I’m not experiencing life under Prime Minister Netanyahu, who am I to decide for other people? They should be deciding for themselves.”
Indeed, several Israelis interviewed acknowledged the political implications of the bill. Mor speculated that Netanyahu’s bill was a strategy aimed at building up political support.
“For the majority of Israelis living abroad, the No. 1 issue is security, and he is very strong on security.”
Cohen also characterized the bill as political maneuvering, in the sense that it would take political power away from local forces.
“We should see it for what it is,” he said. “The more problematic face of this is, it’s basically some sort of insurance policy that will allow Israel to maintain a façade of democracy that is not an ethnic state or a racial state.”
Hoffman noted that “it augments the Jewish population... Whether we like it or not, the demographic issue is a concern.”
With the Arab population multiplying, he said, Israel had to find a way to increase the Israeli Jewish electorate if it wanted to remain the majority.
But Hoffman said Israelis living abroad should not be given carte blanche, and voting rights should be contingent on factors such as, perhaps, army service or holding property in Israel.
On a personal level, Cohen said if the bill passed, “of course” he would vote.
“My sense is that Israelis living abroad, most of them feel very strongly about Israel and would want to be involved,” he said.
Mor, however, said that was not always possible.
“We read the papers here, we read on the Internet, we think we are involved, but we really don’t know what’s going on,” he said.
Citing weekly phone conversations to a childhood friend living in
Israel, he noted, “He opens my eyes every time to an angle of the story
I don’t know.”
In Israel, politics are emotional, Mor pointed out. “You detach from the emotion when you live here in the US.”