With the exception of diplomats, sailors or official envoys, Israelis outside of Israel cannot vote. The country offers no legal framework for absentee voting. Hundreds of thousands of loyal citizens are excluded from the democratic process. It does not mean anything.
That’s why I joined my colleagues in introducing a bill that would allow citizens living in other countries to vote without traveling to Israel. The initiative reflects recognition that the world has changed since the country’s founders made voting conditional on physically appearing at a local polling station and delivering a ballot to the ballot box.
The country’s founders, who chose to prevent Israelis living abroad from voting, had their reasons. It was a policy that sanctified residency in Israel and sought to deter citizens from trying life elsewhere.
But the original policymakers could never have dreamed of a reality where the Israeli economy would go global, forcing companies to constantly send representatives abroad. They could not imagine a world where the low price of travel as well as the local culture of wanderlust means that most Israelis spend long periods outside the country’s borders. And they couldn’t imagine an Internet that would allow Israeli citizens living abroad to stay continuously up to date with what’s going on in the country, by reading the daily newspapers and watching the evening news.
Israeli policymakers in the early state also struggled to accept emigration (or as it is pejoratively called “yeridah” – descent) even temporarily from Israel as a legitimate decision for citizens. For them, spending time outside the country meant diminished patriotism and insufficient commitment to the welfare of Israel. But more than seventy years later, with hundreds of thousands of the country’s best people finding a life outside of Israel (including a litany of children of prime ministers), the stigma of pursuing professional goals , personal or economic outside Israel’s narrow borders has evaporated. I think that’s a good thing: people should be free to travel and try new ways of life – guilt free
Today, an estimated 700,000 potential Israeli voters live outside the country. Israel’s collective challenge has changed. We must maintain a strong and continuous connection with our expatriate citizens. This is not just a pragmatic position, keeping the door open to minimize the bleeding among Israel’s intellectual elite due to the brain drain. Nor is it an opportunistic scam to nurture a new reservoir of support and philanthropy. Allowing Israelis living outside Israel to vote on the spot simply ensures that Israeli citizens continue to enjoy a basic civil right.
It is important to point out that Israel’s current legal framework is a bit out of step. On the one hand, citizens’ right to vote is eternal. It has nothing to do with the duration or end of disconnection with the country among citizens living abroad. If a citizen anywhere is willing to travel to Israel for election day, they have the right to vote. At the same time, the country does not make this fundamental democratic right accessible to dozens of Israelis living around the world, even when they remain very attached to their homeland.
In my view, the right to vote by mail rests on the powerful bond between the citizens of Israel and their state. I’m not alone: A recent survey by the World Zionist Organization confirms that a majority of Israelis see the right to vote by mail, in most cases, as legitimate. The question is: “which cases”.
I imagine a continuum of commitment: on the one hand there is the extreme case of detachment where a Jew has immigrated to Israel – say from the former Soviet Union – with the express intention of moving on, using the country as a stepping stone on their way to their final home. After several months in residence, this stereotypical immigrant manages to find a new host country – and therefore no longer has any contact with Israel. Never strong to begin with, their Hebrew and civic literacy is minimal. There is probably a consensus that these people do not need to have the right to vote by mail.
At the other extreme is a soldier, hitchhiking around the world, after six years of dedicated military service; or a doctor, spending time abroad to acquire a specialty and bring it back to Israel. Here it would seem natural to grant voting rights.
An often-proposed criterion for determining the right to vote outside the country is the five-year residency limit stipulated by Israel National Insurance. Israeli citizens who leave the country must continue to pay a nominal fee in exchange for the guarantee of basic services, such as disability assistance. According to this approach, during the first five years of citizens’ absence, they should have the right to vote remotely.
Such a test of time seems a bit random to me. I can imagine people forgetting the country the second they spread their wings and move on. Alternatively, other long-term residents retain an allegiance and attachment decades after emigrating. Gal Gadot has, for years, spent much of her time living outside the country. Certainly, it retains its Israeli identity; and it is certainly a source of national pride. I wish Danny Avdija a long and storied career in the NBA, with his picture remaining on Israeli cornflake boxes for years to come. They are busy people. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to vote by mail? This may be more difficult for Home Office staff to determine, but I prefer a substantive criterion for voting rights.
When I was studying “civil procedure” at Hebrew University Law School, I remember a geographical test the professor shared with British common law to define a court’s authority to adjudicate on a legal action: “You have to wake up the hypothetical defendant in the middle of the note and yell at them, ‘Where is your house?
This, admittedly, is a difficult test to administer. My colleague in the Knesset, New Hope MK Tzvika Houser, has supported absentee voting for years, ever since he was cabinet secretary a decade ago when he commissioned a study on the subject. He advocates a simpler test. Hauser argues that the best objective indicator of Israeli involvement is taking the time to vote. He suggests that anyone who voted in the previous election, regardless of their geographic location, should have the right to vote in the next election. If someone misses an election, they must come to the polling station to renew their “absentee” status.
Personally, I prefer to set a standard based on the frequency of visits. Coming to Israel on a regular basis reflects ongoing association and involvement which should be the defining feature for an Israeli voter. According to this approach, any citizen who has visited the country in the previous two years should have the right to vote by mail if they wish.
By any measure, studies from other countries with liberal absenteeism laws suggest that relatively few ex-patriots will actually use the right to vote by mail – rarely more than 20%. But again, Israelis abroad tend to be a little obsessed with Israel, preferring to peruse Haaretz, Ynet (or among the elite: The Times of Israel) every morning – before checking out The New York Times.
It turns out that my new absentee voting bill joins a litany of earlier proposals. At a symposium convened by the Israel Democracy Institute In Jerusalem last week, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai described the 2014 absentee voting bill he tried to promote. Shai saw the proposed legislation as a bipartisan issue, submitting the bill with Likud MK David Bitan. Then chairman of the Labor Party (and now president of Israel), Isaac Herzog initially supported the idea, probably because he thought it was good for the country – and good for the labor party. But according to Shai, after a little more thought, Herzog changed his mind and quietly informed him that the party was no longer behind the legislation. Presumably, Herzog thought that Labor would garner fewer absentee rights votes than the competitors.
Naturally, when the problem arises, politicians immediately start speculating and calculating how this huge block of potential could help or hurt their party’s prospects. The assumption is that the 100,000 Israelis in Silicon Valley or Berlin would be good for the center-left – while the Israeli community in Los Angeles is right-wing, Likud-oriented.
I don’t know how opening the Israeli elections to expatriate citizens would affect the outcome. I guess it would be a “washout” between the two political blocs. That’s not the point. The fact is that absentee voting would strengthen the country and its ties to the many citizens who find themselves outside the country during the elections. And it would also reduce the carbon footprint associated with the many Israelis who fly to elections for the sole purpose of exercising their right to vote.
Regardless of where they live, most Israelis eligible to vote enjoy a significant connection to the country: they have paid taxes, served in the military, or are simply a product of culture and the Israeli environment. They remain stakeholders, partners worthy of the privilege of participating in our great democratic adventure. Israeli laws should not ostracize them because of geographical circumstances. They need to be hugged.