Knesset elections 2.0: An absent electorate?

People have been literally lining up to leave, some have left long ago, and others are zapped of the inspiration to vote for what they believe will wind up in another impasse.

A polling station in Jerusalem during the second round of Israeli elections, on Sept. 17, 2019. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
A polling station in Jerusalem during the second round of Israeli elections, on Sept. 17, 2019. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Ruthie Blum. Credit: Courtesy.
Ruthie Blum
Ruthie Blum, an author and award-winning columnist, is a former adviser at the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

For the second time in five months, Israelis are limping their way to polling stations to elect the next government—or at least to attempt to do so, after the failure of the first round.

As was the case in April—when the only thing on which the diverse public could agree was that it would be necessary to hold one’s nose before casting a ballot—the stench of the campaign this month has caused national nausea. So much so, in fact, that thousands of eligible voters lined up on Monday at Ben-Gurion International Airport to flee the country.

Some of these absconders claim that they would rather lounge on a beach abroad than face a dilemma of bad choices at home. Others say that their vote won’t matter anyway since the polls are predicting a similar coalition impasse to that which led the current “re-do.” It’s an odd attitude, considering that this mass of truants constitute about three Knesset seats.

Though it’s true that their number is balanced somewhat by the fact that ex-pat Israelis are making the trek in the other direction in order to have a say in their home country’s political landscape. The trouble is that there are fewer of these than there were in April. After all, taking off work and spending thousands of dollars to fly one’s family across continents is difficult enough as it is. Doing so twice in less than half a year can be prohibitive. Unfortunately, for such people, Israel does not enable absentee ballots, other than for soldiers and diplomats.

For a country whose leaders spent decades demonizing Israelis who sought greener pastures elsewhere, even permitting them to come home to vote has been a subject of controversy. These Israelis were called yordim, which literally translates as “those who go down” (“descend”), though is a word that has a negative connotation—one associated with betrayal of the Zionist enterprise. Its opposite, olim, denotes those who “make aliyah” (“ascend”) to the State of Israel.

In 1976, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated during his second stint as premier in 1995 by right-wing extremist Yigal Amir over the signing the Oslo Accords with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, referred to Israeli yordim as a nefolet shel nemushot, an untranslatable slur meaning something along the lines of “a falling out of wimps.”

A lot has changed since then. Today, moving out of Israel to make it in the big world is a status symbol, not a mark of Cain.

Indeed, Israelis living in America or Europe no longer mutter and stutter shamefacedly when asked about their future plans, feeling compelled to say that they’re on their way back home any day now. As soon as they save up a certain sum of money. Or when their kids finish the school year. Now, they are able to hold their heads high and even admit that they may not be returning. So there.

Even the Jewish Agency for Israel, charged with encouraging and facilitating the “ingathering of exiles,” is now engaged more in “strengthening the Diaspora.”

It is thus odd that absentee-ballot proposals, such as those made by Netanyahu in 2009 and 2015, have never gotten past the theoretical stage. After all, if the best we can hope for Diaspora Jews is that they stay connected in some way to Israel, certainly native Israelis who possess dual citizenship—or temporary/permanent residency in another country—should be given the benefit of their birthright.

Since there has been no in-depth study of the political leanings of the estimated 500,000 to 700,000 ex-pats, it’s not clear whether or not their having the ability to vote from afar would alter the makeup of the Knesset.

One theory is that the young ex-pats in Berlin—one of whom sparked what came to be the called the “Milky (chocolate pudding) protests” over the high cost of living in Israel—tend to be on the left. Another guess is that all Israelis abroad, once faced with anti-Semitism and the BDS movement, shift rightward. But nobody really knows.

What all agree on, however, is that the campaign has been so distasteful as to make us all feel a bit absent on election day, which feels more like an end to torture than a new beginning.

Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ” 

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