For Americans living abroad, voting is a privilege that is taken seriously, particularly in an important presidential election year. And so it was in 2008. Absentee ballots were obtained and submitted, and organizations were active around the globe: Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad toiled overtime to win hearts and minds of U.S. citizens with activities, speakers, and programs focusing on the issues. And in the era of 24-hour global television news, the campaign wasn’t hard to follow abroad.
I know, having lived in Israel for the past 17 years, and I’ve always voted. For me, the process of voting serves as a reminder that the U.S. half of my dual citizenship matters, despite my country of residence.
Most of my friends back in the old country think it is great that I have stayed involved and continue voting. However, the topic has also prompted some lively arguments with some opinionated folks who seriously question whether the right to use my vote to influence the American future is deserved and whether it should be exercised given the inevitable divided loyalties. And even I admit that divided loyalties exist — more than once, I have deliberated between a candidate with whom I agree on domestic issues and another whom I perceive as a stronger supporter of Israel.
Conservative blogger John Hawkins doesn’t think I should have the luxury of such deliberation. If it were up to him dual citizenship wouldn’t be an option and he frowns on my choice to cast a vote. “Military personnel serving on bases abroad, diplomats serving abroad, students or businessmen who are living in another country for a few years — fine, they should vote,” he told me when we discussed the ethics of expats during the 2008 campaign. “But if you don’t have any immediate plans to return to live long-term in the U.S. — especially if you take citizenship in another country — you shouldn’t be voting.”
The Israeli government takes an even more extreme position. For an Israeli living in the United States or elsewhere, voting is out of the question. With the exception of diplomatic staff in embassies and consulates abroad, no Israeli — whether student, businessman, on a week-long vacation or a long-term stay in any other country — has ever been allowed to vote. Citizenship means nothing if your feet are not planted firmly on native soil on election day.
Because Israel is a country built on exiles returning to build a Jewish homeland, living abroad — for most of the country’s history — has been something to be frowned on and even condemned. It’s a form of abandonment. The attitude is so firm that it is built into the language: The word in Hebrew for “diaspora” is the biblical word for “exile.” Immigrating to Israel is aliya, or “going up,” and leaving the country is yerida, or “going down.” The joke goes that Israelis can live in the U.S. or Europe for years or even for decades mentally “sitting on their suitcases” — never admitting that they will never go back to their homeland. Although there have been Israeli emigrants living for decades in the United States, they have never been a proud immigrant group in the U.S. or even an active part of the American Jewish community, because creating an “Israeli-American” identity would be an admission that their stay is in fact permanent.
But in an era of globalization, with the vast majority of Israeli companies maintaining some form of overseas presence, Israelis shuttling all over the globe for work and study, and the de-stigmatization of residence abroad in popular culture (fictional and real-life examples: the Zohan and supermodel Bar Rafaeli), the no-voting-from-abroad policy is being reassessed.
In recent days, a political firestorm has been raging as to whether Israelis overseas should be permitted to vote. It began when Yisrael Beitenu, the party of controversial Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, first proposed a bill declaring that holding an Israeli passport for ten years should entitle any citizen to vote, regardless of residence, stating:
In the age of globalization, when so many Israelis are abroad for business during election days, we must allow them to participate in the election process via Israeli embassies and consulates, as is customary in many democratic nations such as Britain, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Holland, Switzerland, the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who himself lived in the United States as a student and a businessman, quickly gave the bill his support in what has proven to be an overly hasty and politically inexpedient decision.
As it turns out, in a country with astronomically high taxes, required army and reserve service, and continuing security threats, the idea of letting Israelis who live safely and comfortably overseas participate in fateful decisions is still extremely unpopular.
Netanyahu’s political enemies pounced. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni of the Kadima Party quickly seized the opportunity to lead the charge against the idea, with Kadima filing a no-confidence motion against the government for supporting the proposal. She declared:
The right to determine Israel’s fate should be in the hands of those who live in Israel and are willing to bear the consequences of their decisions in the polling booth, for better or worse. I believe that Israelis should be encouraged to return to Israel, but the right to decide what will happen in the country should be reserved for those who decided to choose their future inside it.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak of the Labor Party, Netanyahu’s coalition partner, came out unequivocally against it as well, stating:
Only those people who are here with us and who bear the risks and burden of being here should be allowed to vote in Israel.
Emotional arguments against the idea ensued. Columnist and television anchorman Yair Lapid, who has been perceived as flirting with an entrance on the political stage in recent weeks, called the bill “immoral in the deepest sense of the word.”
Writing during a visit in snowbound Washington, D.C., he lamented:
The bill which Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed to pass … says that someone can live in this cold, wake up in the morning, clear the snow around his house, get the GMC out of the garage, travel on broad streets, amidst Victorian brownstones, enter a small room, vote for Lieberman, or National Union, or Meretz, determine our fate, interfere in our future, decide what our lives will look like, and then drive back home, kiss Irene or Catherine, and then help John Junior write an essay about Lincoln and the Civil War.
The proposal has not been completely without defenders. Some contend that a small and vulnerable country such as Israel can only benefit from having supportive citizens living around the world. Preserving the sense of belonging among those who live abroad, many of whom served in the army in their youth, can only be to Israel’s advantage and increase the chances that they — or their children — might someday choose to return to live in Israel.
But the pitfalls are substantial. With Israel’s fast path to citizenship owing to the Law of Return, theoretically large numbers of Jews living abroad could strategically move to Israel short-term, take up their voting rights, and return to their homes overseas with a license to vote en masse.
The irony in the situation is that from an idealogical standpoint, the natural position for the nationalist and patriotic right — the Lieberman-Netanyahu camp — would be to oppose those living overseas voting, not to propose it. One doesn’t have to be too cynical to understand that self-interest plays a role in the right’s advocacy of overseas voting. The end result of overseas voting would be increased support for the further right and more religious parties. Even if the vast majority of Israeli citizens living abroad don’t necessarily hold right-wing views, those who would be motivated to take the time and trouble to make it to the polls would be the populations of Orthodox Jews living in large cities.
For the same reason, the more international and global centrist and left-wing parties, who enjoy their prolonged stays in Paris, Cambridge, and Silicon Valley and should more naturally be cheerleading the idea of voting from abroad, are opposing it.
A search for middle ground is underway; some politicians are proposing criteria that would allow “deserving” Israelis overseas to vote, while excluding others. Livni’s rival for the leadership of Kadima, Shaul Mofaz, parted with her unequivocal stance:
I am against saying that everyone who lives abroad can vote. On the other hand, it’s different when people fulfill their duty to Israel — pay taxes, serve in the army, have their kids serve in the army, bear the burden. People who leave for a short period of time should not lose their right to vote and shouldn’t have to pay $1,000 to fly here.
In an attempt to control the damage from Netanyahu’s initial support of Lieberman’s bill, Netanyahu’s Likud Party is also forming an alternative proposal which would grant voting rights for those who have lived abroad for less than six years, during which they spent at least 40 days in Israel.
Time will tell if any of these proposals makes it to a full Knesset vote. Most observers believe it will remain a theoretical tempest in a teapot for years to come.
In the meantime, voting will remain an expensive airline ticket away for Israelis living in Los Angeles, Miami, and New York. And the next time I send in my U.S. absentee ballot for the price of a stamp, I will appreciate the bargain.