Illustration by Lior Zaltzman
I was exactly 18 the first time I voted in the Israeli elections. I was a newly minted soldier, uniform all fresh and stiff, with the dent of the strap of my M16 on my shoulder, waiting in line at an army base. More than anything I was welling up, filled with hope and a sense of importance, just a sting of it. And for a second I felt empowered in a country that often left me feeling hopeless and powerless.
It’s eight years later and I’m walking around downtown Brooklyn with my Israeli best friend from elementary school. I tell her that I’m thinking of going back home for the elections. And she laughs. It’s such a waste of your time, she says. Come for Passover instead.
I wish I had something to say in response.
Israelis can’t vote by absentee ballot unless they’re soldiers, prisoners, sailors, overseas diplomats, disabled or hospitalized. Which means that if you’re an Israeli like me, who was born and raised there, whose entire family still lives there, who has no other citizenship, you have to come up with the resources for a plane ticket and take the time off work to exercise your most important civil right.
This election season, an Israeli Facebook group has sprung up under the name “Israelis Abroad Are Coming to Vote”. Its goal was to help find and encourage cheap flights to Israel. It started as a small group of members looking for flight deals online and since they’ve expanded, they’ve been in touch with airlines to try to get good deals that will allow Israelis to fly back for the day of the election. Right now, the prices from New York are still relatively high and it will probably still be a significant expense for me and my fellow expats in America.
I’ve lived in Europe and in the U.S., and I have to say, you’d be hard pressed to find many people who have as strong and charged a connection to their nationality as Israelis do. Not a day goes by when we aren’t confronted with the reality of where we’re from. That reality is even more pronounced for those of us who live abroad.
But it’s not just fiscal or technical concerns that are stopping me from going back. In these especially politically charged times, and in the aftermath of the Gaza war, I’m having a hard time deciding who to vote for. My elementary school friend is facing a similar dilemma. She told me she’ll probably decide in the voting booth. Worse, she doesn’t even think it matters.
There’s a rising despair among the Israeli left wing, and it’s gotten worse after the last operation in Gaza. The left wing has been careening to the right and even Labor, the party my grandparents voted for their whole lives, has been dubbed a centrist party and changed its name to the Zionist Camp. But it’s not just us left wingers who’ve been disappointed. “Bibi Again” is the punchline to both jokes and somber predictions about the elections. Even my Likudnik friends who would vote for Bibi if they were going back say they’d be doing so reluctantly.
I couldn’t go back to Israel for the 2013 election, my first election away from Israel. I was in the midst of a busy school year. I did feel crushed by its results. I wished I had the ability to go in and make a difference, to at least have the sense of hopelessness rise from action rather than inaction.
The head of the group, Amos Geva, hit the nail on the head in an interview with TLV1:
“While there is a lot of frustration and a lot of disappointment, people are also very much connected to the country whether they want to or not… Because that’s just a force of nature… If you’re a citizen of a country you’re linked to that country for good or for bad. So everybody who’s a citizen whether in Israel or abroad, they have a responsibility, they have a connection, they want to have a place they can come back to someday… Their family is there or their loved ones. And that’s basically what this is all about. It’s about people who are caring and interested in the future of the country and this is a difficult time and people want to be involved.”
Which is why I want to go back. My last visit to Israel, I was lucky enough to be able to participate in the municipal elections in Ramat Gan. I helped vote in its new mayor. It felt like a small victory.
Maybe in these elections we can make a change. Or maybe they’ll be another great disappointment. Will it really make a difference if we expats go back to vote? I don’t have an answer.
I haven’t booked my flight quite yet.