Long-distance voting

Israelis living abroad for no longer than four years who intend to return home should have this right. This is not absentee Zionism.

January 20, 2013 22:34
3 minute read.
Israeli-Arab man casts his vote [file photo]

Israeli-Arab man casts his vote elections voting 370 (R). (photo credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters)


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With Israel’s elections just a day away, there has been a renewed push to convince the undecided, the apathetic, the confused and the just plain lazy to get out and vote.

But what about the absentees? For years, voter turnout has hovered just under 80 percent. But a sharp drop to just 62.3% was registered in 2001, when the short-lived system of directly voting for the prime minister was instituted.

Since then, voter turnout has remained below 70% (67.8% in 2003, 63.5% in 2006 and 65% in 2009), lower than many European countries. These include Italy, where voting was once compulsory, Belgium, where it still is, and Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian states.

This state of affairs has triggered collective hand-wringing over deteriorating civic responsibility, a phenomenon particularly worrying in Israel where hard fought-for and prayed-for Jewish sovereignty should be appreciated. And there is real cause for concern.

However, the numbers are misleading – voter delinquency is not quite as bad as it seems. That’s because included among the hundreds of thousands who opt not to vote are more than a half a million citizens living abroad.

Many are still deeply connected to the Jewish state and would gladly vote if they could do so without having to get on a plane and come to Israel. But since present legislation does not provide for absentee ballots, these Israelis living abroad are prevented from exercising their democratic right on foreign soil.

This state of affairs is unfair. Israelis living abroad for no longer than four years who intend to return home should be given the right to vote.

A large swathe of Israeli émigrés and others who answer to the derogatory tag yordim [literally, those who go down] remain intensely connected to the Jewish state. Geographical distances have lost significance with the advent of technology enabling globe-embracing virtual communities.

According to the Jewish People Policy Institute’s Yogev Karasenty, empowering Israelis living abroad with voting rights would further strengthen ties between Diaspora and homeland. Voting is not just the result of a heartfelt commitment to one’s country; the act of voting can help foster engagement.

Karasenty has noted that contrary to belief, a large percentage of Israelis residing abroad end up returning to Israel within five years. In 2009, for instance, 86% of those who returned to Israel after a stay of one year or more had been abroad for less than five years. In 2008, 90% had been.

It is estimated that those meeting the four-year criterion and are 18-years-old or more number less than 50,000.

Many temporarily residing abroad are serving the State of Israel in diverse ways. A hi-tech worker developing and applying Israeli-made technologies abroad or a post-grad student is no less an emissary for Israel than a Jewish Agency shaliach (emissary).

Why should they be deprived of the right to vote? Many have argued that Israel’s situation is unique and incomparable to western countries such as the US, Britain (where expats can vote for up to 15 years after leaving their country), France (where for the first time in June 2012, citizens living abroad were allowed to vote for an MP to represent them in the Assemblée Nationale) and elsewhere that give expats the right to vote.

In Israel’s hyper-flammable, geopolitical environment, say proponents of the status quo, we simply cannot risk permitting individuals on the ideological fringes to vote for a party that advocates the mass expulsion of Arabs or the creation of a binational state, while living comfortably far away from the epicenter of the political earthquake which their decision would create.

Others point to the fact that while some countries, such as the US, allow their citizens to vote abroad, others, such as Canada, do not. If you’re not living in Canada for over five years, your right to vote is revoked.

Indeed, the right to vote should not be extended to expats indefinitely. But at the very least, Israelis living abroad for no longer than four years who intend to return home should have this right. This is not absentee Zionism.

By exercising their right to vote, these “temporarily relocated” Israelis would both strengthen ties with their homeland and strengthen Israeli democracy by increasing voter turnout.

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