Snap Judgement: Home is where the vote is

Many Jews would like the privilege of voting in Israeli elections without the inconvenience of having to live here.

voting ballots 298 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
voting ballots 298 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Here's an interesting trivia question: Name at least one other country besides Israel that does not allow absentee balloting (voting from abroad, except for diplomatic officials) in national elections? Need a hint? It's another relatively small nation (population three million) with a large diaspora community and a storied history, bordered by hostile states in a volatile part of the world. The answer can be found lower down. But before we get there, let's talk about why absentee balloting is still a bad idea for this country, despite a recent Jerusalem Post editorial arguing otherwise. There are indeed, as the editorial pointed out, arguments to be made to change a policy that has existed since the founding of the state. In the global communications age it is no longer a daunting task to conduct an absentee ballot vote; far bigger countries than Israel, including the US, do so without major problems. It is also true that "as with most other developed democracies, Israel has thousands of loyal citizens legitimately abroad for various periods of time, in the wake of their admirably productive work in a rapidly globalizing world." And yes, while once allowing absentee ballots had the stigma of legitimizing yerida (emigration from Israel), it can be reasonably argued that "Israel has become sufficiently established, both demographically and economically, to not fear that an absentee ballot would be misinterpreted as a prize for leaving." However that doesn't mitigate the fact that an estimated 600,000 Israelis - roughly 10 percent of the electorate - now make their home more-or-less permanently abroad. I'm hardly comfortable with the notion that these expatriate Israelis could be such a decisive factor in elections that, for example, could determine the state's permanent borders, and I can imagine many other resident Israelis who feel the same. Personally, when I moved from the US to Israel 20 years ago, I made a decision to stop voting in American elections. In this globalized world, it is indeed increasingly common for people to have citizenship in more than one country; my own children hold three different passports. But voting is not a right of citizenship, it's a privilege. In many democratic societies, voter registration is not automatic (although in this one it is) and can be limited under certain conditions (such as for convicted prisoners). It certainly seems to me a reasonable proposition that if one holds citizenship in a certain nation, but has no intention of making permanent residence there, choosing not to take part in its elections is the proper decision. Of course, it's not always so easy to determine whether someone is really intending to reside permanently abroad; many Israelis themselves don't honestly know the answer to that question, even after years of living away from home. At least one way then, of testing the civic commitment of expatriates, is by demanding they return home at least once every few years to vote in a national election. This is presumably why countries with large diaspora communities, such as Armenia - the answer to the above question - have no absentee ballot. YET EVEN if one rejects this argument, there's another good reason why absentee balloting is specifically a bad idea for Israel. The problem is connected to the Law of Return, which makes it easier for foreign Jews to obtain Israeli citizenship than immigrants to most other countries. The Israeli expatriate community already includes many immigrants who, for various reasons, returned to their countries of origin, some after living here for a relatively short period of time. In recent years there has even been growing concern that some of these short-term olim basically exploited the Law of Return simply to obtain the assistance given to new immigrants, before they returned home or moved on elsewhere. If absentee balloting were approved, it's possible that the right to vote would be similarly abused by Jews abroad looking to influence the ideological direction of Israel without any intention to actually live here on a permanent basis. Sound far-fetched? I don't think so. I personally know many such people in the American Jewish community, on both the Right and Left, who would like nothing better than having the privilege of voting in Israeli elections, without the inconvenience of actually having to pay Israeli taxes, serve (or have their children serve) in the IDF, learn Hebrew, or risk getting on the same roads as Israeli drivers. Nor can I say I blame them. Especially since there have been some serious proposals - in one case from no less than Natan Sharansky - suggesting that some kind of system be set up that would allow world Jewry to take part in Israeli elections. Even the recent PR effort "IsraelVotes," in which American college students took part via the Web in mock Israeli elections, seems to suggest that it might be OK to cast a ballot here without actually being here. "This is a chance to leverage the Israeli elections, to use them as a way of showing off Israel's democracy," said one of its promoters. Actually, I find something profoundly anti-democratic in the notion of foreign citizens, Jewish or otherwise, even pretending to vote in another nation's elections. What's more, if voting by itself were a mark of true democracy, the Palestinian Authority, Iraq, Syria and Iran would all be in far better shape today. While there may well be a way to answer all these concerns and still allow absentee balloting, it's probably best to just continue with the present voting policy. I don't relish the thought, under any circumstances, of heated arguments over disengagement or settlements at polling stations in Brooklyn, Los Angeles or Amsterdam. If it really means so much to Israelis living abroad, they'll find the airfare to come home to cast their ballots. To quote an old saying in a different context, "All politics is local" - so let votes about Israel's future borders at least be cast within the present ones. The writer is director of The Israel Project's Jerusalem Media Resource Center.