Let them vote!

Israelis living abroad for no longer than four years and who intend to return home should be given the right to vote.

Haredi man casts ballot elections 390 (R) (photo credit: Gil Cohen Magen / Reuters)
Haredi man casts ballot elections 390 (R)
(photo credit: Gil Cohen Magen / Reuters)
The most common reason given for not allowing Israeli expats to vote is existential: Someone who does not face the life-threatening risk of a suicide bomber, a Grad rocket, a gun-toting Palestinian “freedom fighter” or the threat of Iranian-made nuclear weapons hasn’t the right to determine the political policies that could mean the difference between life and death.
In Israel’s hyper-flammable geopolitical environment, say proponents of the status quo, we simply cannot risk permitting people 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 that their decisions would create.
In short, Israel’s situation is unique and cannot be compared to that of Western countries that give expats the right to vote.
Nevertheless, the government is taking a renewed interest in legislation that would give expats who meet certain criteria this right. This is a positive step that recognizes the new realities of border-blurring globalization.
Cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser is reviewing a policy paper from the Jewish People Policy Institute that would allow Israelis to vote during their first four years abroad, after registering at an Israeli consulate and declaring that they intend to return to Israel.
The proposal to amend the voting law is one of several measures suggested by JPPI’s Yogev Karasenty to strengthen ties between Israel and Israeli émigrés derogatorily referred to as yordim [those who go down] – though the negative sentiments associated with emigration from Israel are practically nonexistent today.
Karasenty has noted that contrary to common belief, a large proportion of Israelis residing abroad end up returning to Israel within five years. In 2009, for instance, 86 percent of those who returned to Israel after a stay of one year or more had been abroad for fewer than five years. In 2008, 90% fell in that category.
And many are serving the State of Israel in diverse ways. Hi-tech workers developing and applying Israeli-made technologies or performing post-graduate studies are no less emissaries of Israel than a Jewish Agency emissary. Why should they be deprived of the vote? Voting rights for Israelis residing abroad has become a partisan issue. Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich voiced opposition to the idea, warning of a “slippery slope” in which even those who have been living abroad for decades or immigrants from the former Soviet Union who passed through Israel on their way elsewhere would be permitted to vote as well.
In contrast, parties on the Right such as the Likud, which has a long history of supporting such legislation, such as last year’s “Omri Casspi Bill,” named after the first Israeli to play in the NBA, and Israel Beiteinu, strongly favor extending voting rights to those residing abroad.
But the split between Left and Right does not seem to be motivated by narrow political considerations.
There is no clear evidence that Israelis residing abroad are more right-wing than those living in Israel. This is especially true regarding the approximately 50,000 people who would meet the criteria proposed by the JPPI’s Karasenty.
The terrorist attack in Toulouse last week proved once again that the fate of Jews living in the Diaspora is tied to the Jewish state. Diaspora Jews are regularly singled out for attack after Israel uses force to defend itself. It is no coincidence that anti-Semitic attacks abroad jumped sharply during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and Operation Cast Lead in 2009.
At the very least, Israelis living abroad for no longer than four years and who intend to return home should be given the right to vote. Doing so would not only strengthen our ties with these “relocated” Israelis, it would also reflect the reality that many of these people are no less part of the Jewish state than their brothers and sisters who are physically situated in Israel.