Israeli citizens abroad don’t need to vote, they’re absent for a reason

You don’t need New York to understand Israelis’ lukewarm commitment to civic engagement. Electoral turnout has been in a steady decline. Haaretz, April 20, 2012 Should Israel grant its citizens living abroad the right to…

You don’t need New York to understand Israelis’ lukewarm commitment to civic engagement. Electoral turnout has been in a steady decline.

Haaretz, April 20, 2012

Should Israel grant its citizens living abroad the right to vote in Israeli elections?

Reviving a long-dormant campaign promise, the Netanyahu government recently commissioned a policy paper on the matter from the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute. The author, JPPI Fellow Yogev Karasenty, sees the question as one pitting the right of every Israeli to vote against conditioning voting on residence. Karasenty proposes that out-of-country voting should be permitted for Israelis who have been abroad for under four years, the length of a full term of office in the Knesset. He warns, though, that there is “a real concern that Israelis who have no intention of coming back will usurp the voting option.”

Immediately, the idea of granting out-of-country voting elicits impassioned, polarized reactions.

Writing in Haaretz on April 10, Moshe Arens responded to a public opinion issued by a group of intellectuals and other public figures that framed the proposal as threatening yet another “final blow” to Israeli democracy, intended to circumvent future government change by tapping into the supposedly overwhelmingly right-wing expat Israeli community.

Arens rejects the group’s “nightmare” scenario on two accounts. First, there’s no way of predicting how overseas voters would vote. Second, whatever their inclinations might be, their “basic right as citizens” is a matter of principle.

Arens’ reasoning and moderate tone almost convinced me. If several countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States, allow expats to participate in their electoral system, why not follow their lead?

On a closer examination, I believe he, together with the JPPI and the intellectual crowd behind the public call, is missing the point, and taking for granted something that is not so self-apparent.

For starters, the principle. Arens unhelpfully overemphasizes an issue of little priority. In fact, out-of-country voting is far cry from being a must-have right. Peter Erben, of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, in Washington, D.C., wrote me that “[a]cademics and election practitioners agree that out-of-country voting cannot be considered an international electoral standard but rather an option each nation must take carefully into consideration when trying to enfranchise as many illegible citizens as possible.” A white paper on out-of-country voting he coauthored and released this month by IFES states: “While there are often strong arguments for making out-of-country voting available, the complexities and inherent imperfections of the process can lead to a negative overall experience.”

Indeed, the Israeli case is not one of “no taxation without representation”; If anything it’s more of “no representation without taxation” (the “tax” being the difficulties that come with living in Israel ) – compatible with democratic, Jewish and Zionist values. Aggrandizing a secondary matter by evoking “basic rights” only distracts us from serious consideration of serious questions.

What seems clear is that, regardless of where we stand in principle, in reality, being able to vote is far from being a priority to those of us Israelis who reside abroad.

As Arens points out, the caricature of the expat community as right-wing is unfounded. Read the JPPI paper and you will see how little we actually know about Israelis living abroad. The data of geographic distribution and demographic profiles are insufficient to either confirm or refute one’s nightmares or another’s aspirations. In fact, the statistics are simply inadequate to recommend policy.

Yet we can still reckon that some Israelis in, say, New York, will take a day off to vote; some may even drive in from out of town to exercise the coveted right. And since you won’t make the effort unless you feel passionate about the cause, I imagine their voting will be skewed in one political direction or another. But look at the bigger picture. How many of us will actually bother?

You don’t need New York to understand Israelis’ lukewarm commitment to civic engagement. Electoral turnout has been in a steady decline. In 1996, my first year of voting, it was 79.32 percent of registered voters, a figure that by 2009, when the last national election was held, had fallen to 64.72 percent, slightly above the all-time low recorded three years earlier, of 63.55 percent. By the way, turnout was the highest at 86.89 percent in the first-ever election for the constituent assembly, in January 1949.

If Israel’s nonvoters constituted a party, it would be the country’s biggest. Of course, many nonvoters may now reside abroad, yet it’s naive to believe that enlarging the voter pool will improve turnout. Regardless of whether we are in Tel Aviv or in New York, we care – just not enough.

Why should the turnout rate be any better in New York (or Los Angeles, London or New Delhi )? The very fact that we live abroad is itself a statement that life in Israel is not that important to us. And, whatever intentions one had in coming here, or going back, who can possibly miss civic life back home?

So please, Mr. Arens, save your eloquence and efforts for more pressing questions. Mr. Karasenty, kindly reexamine your assumption that the right to vote is an aphrodisiac for our Jewish or Israeli identity abroad. And progressive intellectuals, if you want to worry, why not wring your hands over the ever-growing silence on election day among those who have the power to vote?

Don’t you get it? We are not in Israel, because we already voted – absentee.

Yoav Sivan, an Israeli journalist, is a visiting scholar in sociology at New York University. His website is www.YoavSivan.com.

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