Should Citizens Living Abroad Get a Vote?

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.