My Word: Polls Apart

Many ‘normal’ countries allow citizens who live abroad to vote. But this is not a ‘normal’ country.

Ir g’dola bli hayalim, ve’i efshar lishon...

A big city without soldiers, and it’s impossible to sleep

Bells ringing on a Sunday morn

A cold moon over skyscrapers and a real winter

I feel simply great, but this is not my home...

(From: Yonatan sa habayta/Yonatan, go home)
Yonatan Gefen’s lyrics buzzed around my head last week as the topic of voting rights for emigrant Israelis was raised once again. The song, released in 1972, gained popularity the following year during the Yom Kippur War, when it served as a call on those abroad to come home and fight for the country’s survival.
We’ve come a long way since Yitzhak Rabin called yordim – emigrants from Israel – “wimpy drop-outs.” Nearly all Israelis know someone who left the country and who – it gradually becomes clear – is not coming back to live.
The pockets of Israelis who created tiny urban kibbutzim in a new land that will never quite be “home” have turned into huge Hebrew-speaking communities whose children suffer from culture shock when they visit relatives who remained in the old – nay, ancient – country.
The Israelis abroad – and there are a lot of them – are no longer ashamed of their status. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics the number of Israelis eligible to vote but who were out of the country during last year’s elections was more than 500,000. This could translate into several Knesset seats, each one of them significant given how fractured many of the lists have become.
THE SO-CALLED “Emigrants’ Law” has been bouncing around for a long time. I covered many stormy discussions on the subject as a parliamentary reporter in 1997. Yossi Beilin, then a candidate for the Labor Party leadership, condemned it with the words: “The cynicism of the ostensibly nationalist camp has reached new heights with a proposal which will allow former Israelis who abandoned us to send our children to the next war.”
Reuven (Ruby) Rivlin, now Knesset Speaker in a position to help push the legislation but then a Likud MK struggling to get it passed, hit back against its detractors, saying: “It’s incomprehensible that the cry comes from those MKs from the Left who are prepared to give away large parts of the land, citing demographic reasons. Why not let the thousands of Israelis who are still attached to the country influence the future of their country?”
There is no doubt that many “normal” countries – like the United States or Britain – allow their citizens who live abroad to participate in national elections. But this is not a “normal” country. That’s both the charm and the curse of Israel. It’s what brings Jewish immigrants here and what drives people to leave.
We live normal lives – even good lives – amid very abnormal circumstances. Not by chance did Gefen note the absence of soldiers in the big, alien city abroad.
Some say the law would encourage expats to return by making them feel wanted. But it wasn’t the lack of love at home that caused them to leave. And where, indeed, is the incentive to come back if you can not only continue reading the Hebrew tabloids, listen to the Voice of Israel via the Web but even vote at your local consulate, along with your Hebrew-speaking neighbors?
The Left largely believes the vote abroad would favor the right wing. As one wag put it last week: “Many Israelis don’t even realize they are right wing until they go abroad and have to stand up for Israel all the time. The further they go, the more to the right they travel. Just compare those who live in Toronto and Los Angeles to Israelis living in Tel Aviv.”
For the bill to pass, it will no doubt need to be revised. Readers in New York or Melbourne shouldn’t hold their breath. Under the current law, only diplomatic staff, government emissaries and Zim merchant sailors can vote outside the country.
Clearly, there are growing numbers of people who go elsewhere in the global village to study or work for a while – let alone that peculiarly Israeli breed of backpacker on a post-army trek, seeking to find themselves far away from the home they have just spent years in uniform defending.
BUT SUCH is life. Just as those who go abroad for a year or more know they will miss birthdays, anniversaries and other family celebrations, so they must take into account the possibility that they might miss general elections. Too bad.
Given the rate in which the country goes to the polls, chances are they won’t have to wait long before getting another chance to exercise their democratic right.
In any case, Israelis who happen to be in the country – or can afford to fly here specially or find a sponsored flight – can vote on election day. It is a matter of moral rights, not legal ones.
There is also the matter of the “immigrant-emigrants” – people who lived in Israel for a short period – enough to get all the immigrant benefits and rights before moving on to somewhere “better.” They have created communities of “Israelis,” some of whom don’t know enough Hebrew to follow the average party political broadcast. The latest legislation, incidentally or not, was drawn up by Israel Beiteinu which has a largely Russian-speaking electorate.
Most emigrants say they try to stay in touch. Many continue to pay national insurance. And all feel close to Israel during periods of crisis. The trouble is, the times of crisis are ongoing.
While American-Israelis – and yes, you can hyphenate it – were watching the Superbowl, Israelis in Israel were watching reports of Iran stepping up its nuclear enrichment program. It deflected attention from the warlike words of Syria’s foreign minister who met his verbal, equally undiplomatic, match in Avigdor Lieberman.
Israelis abroad might still sing Shlomo Artzi songs and reminisce about their army service while they chew sunflower seeds, but they don’t face the same threats as Israelis do at home.
Lebanon II, in which the North was bombarded with missiles, the years of Kassams in the South and the terror war which affected just about everywhere else have proven that the home front is the new frontlines.
While past discussions on the Emigrants Law focused on whether thosewho do not serve in the IDF should be allowed to influence affairs ofwar and peace, now the question is almost irrelevant. When war can hitvery, very close to home, the question needs to be: Who is prepared totie his fate to the country by actually living in it? Simply put: Ifyou don’t face the bullet, you shouldn’t have the ballot.
Those who want to exercise their full democratic rights are welcome tovote – with their feet. As Gefen’s song puts it: “Take a small gift forthe kid (an airplane).” If you want a say in the country’s future, comehome.