On Israeli Elections

It is hard to describe the feeling of voting in israel. Like many aspects of life here, the mere fact of voting feels like nothing less than a celebration of life itself. Election Day in Israel is a time for all the old Zionist kitsch to well up inside – deep gratitude for the first Jewish-majority country in 2000 years, for the revival of the Hebrew language, for the Jews’ return to the Land of Israel after 2000 years, for the privilege of living in the Holy Land. For generations of Jews, including our greatest scholars and leaders, Eretz Yisrael was nothing more than a dream. The enormity of living here is not lost on me.

For me, the religious significance and Divine privilege of living my life here is not limited to holidays. I try to remain cognisant of that on a daily basis feelings, but those feelings are emphasised ten-fold on special Israeli occasions such as Independence Day, Jerusalem Reunification Day and Election Day. Yes, many aspects of life in Israel are challenging, and our ongoing inability to win out over those challenges is particularly frustrating. But overall, I am grateful for the challenges, for the opportunity to face these them as a sovereign nation. I am proud of what Zionism and Israel have accomplished over the past 150 years. Election Day is a critical time to remember all that.

In addition, given the challenges we face, electing a new Knesset also carries with it a strong, palpable sense of doom, even of fate. In 1996, my first election in Israel, my hands literally trembled as I put the white slip in the little blue envelope. In America, a Republican or Democratic victory might be cause for celebration or sadness, but little more than that. Elections might be important, but the future existence of the country was never in doubt.

In contrast, Election Day in 1996 felt like the Zionist experiment could come to a violent end, with the re-exile of the Jewish People, had Shimon Peres won that election. Opponents of Binyamin Netanyahu clearly feel the same feeling in the other direction today.

Altogether, then, the decision not to vote is a serious matter, far beyond the proportions and emotions of voting or not voting in other places. Many Americans view voting as a chore, rather than privilege, and voting competes there with work and university obligations, shopping or just plain laziness or apathy. This is reflected in the fact that less than 60 percent of eligible voters voted for president in 2012. Similarly, in Australia nearly all citizens vote, but many people say openly that they would not feel a strong moral voice compelling them to do so were it not for the $75 fine they would receive for not voting.

In contrast, my decision not to vote in the elections following the 2005 destruction of Jewish communities in Gush Katif and the subsequent abuse of the victims of th at operation was fraught and painful. I believed, and still do, that disengagement, as the Israeli left euphemistically called it, and especially the neglect of the victims of that move, was nothing more than the abuse and exploitation of democratic norms in order to save then-prime minister Ariel Sharon from indictment on a series of corruption charges. In the years following that trauma, hundreds of families complained that they had had their homes stolen in broad daylight, while consecutive governments refused to provide fair compensation for their losses, and made it difficult to obtain the minimal compensation that was available.

To me, the poor treatment of the Gaza refugees seemed – and still seems – like a clear message to the settlement community: If you oppose a future pullout from areas of Judea and Samaria, the Gush Katif model can and will be replicated for you. If that was what Israeli democracy had become, I wanted no part of it.

As a result, in 2006 and 2009 I took the principled stand not to participate in Israeli democracy. That decision was a painful and sad reminder of my inner pain and sadness at the notion that were it to become politically expedient, I knew Israeli society would not hesitate to violate democratic principles in order to evict me from my home. Simply put, I felt that Israel had lost faith in me, and I reciprocated that feeling. My decision not to vote was (at least to me) a stinging rebuke of Israel. I rejected the legitimacy of Israel itself in light of Gush Katif.

I returned to the voting booth in 2013, for two reasons: First, the Gush Katif settlers themselves had turned out en masse to vote in the elections following their eviction.They said clearly that even if this country had betrayed them, they would not betray Israel. “This isn’t about us,” one settler told me five years after Disengagement. “Israel didn’t stick a knife in our backs. Israel stuck a knife in our country’s back. Ariel Sharon did not betray us. He betrayed Israel.” I found comfort in Eliyahu Uzen’s words, and decided that if he could continue to vote in Israeli elections,if he did not reject the legitimacy of Israel, then I had a responsibility to find the inner space to do the same.

The second reason I voted in 2013 was the emergence of the Yesh Atid party. I was never enthralled with Party Chairman Yair Lapid, but I liked his strong list of non-politicians. I have said and written for years that Israeli politicians are largely responsible for having creating much of the messy situations that Israel faces toadying that committed, intelligent, fresh-thinking new voices that were unbound by “how politics works” could at the very least inject new tone and content into the Israeli poltiic. Whether or not they accomplished that goal is not the subject of this essay, other to say that I continue to identify with that attempt to re-define the way in which our country is governed. I also felt that that redefining politics was an important step towards repairing my broken feelings following Gush Katif.

Despite those reasons, the decision to vote was difficult. It was tough to reconcile my dreams and hopes for Israel and the rational understanding of what a world without Israel means for Jews with the deep hurt that lingered as a result of the Gush Katif pullout.

All of which brings us to today. Unlike post-Disengagement , there was a small movement over the past several months of Israelis who said they would take the principled stand not to vote. Their argument is simple: The current elections, and indeed the current crop of candidates for the Knesset, collectively represent their contempt for Israel, Israelis and for democracy. In their view, today’s election was a sign of Israel’s failed leadership, not a celebration of democracy. According to that view, voting for the current crop of candidates, with no prospect for change on anyone’s horizon, would have been irresponsible. As in 2006 and 2009, I strongly identify with that message.

And yet, having overcome the trauma of Gush Katif to vote in 2013 – essentially deciding that the sins of Disengagement did not outweigh the overall good of Israel – I could not stay away from the ballot box today. In part, this feeling was inspired by Facebook – so many of my friends wrote passionately about the privilege and blessing they felt when voting here, it was hard for me to disagree. It is a privilege and an honour to live here, and I try to remain thankful for that.

But I simply could not give my sacred vote to any of the candidates running. While I continue to value the message that Yesh Atid represents, I felt they did not sufficiently acknowledge the areas in which they were unsuccessful during the 19th Knesset. That felt to me like they had fallen into the traditional Israeli political refusal to take responsibility and to learn from mistakes. Walking into the voting booth, I told my wife that I was going to vote for BeZchutan – the small group of haredi women who tried to challenge the rabbinic establishment by forming their own party. It was not a joke, and I seriously considered voting for those brave women.

Ultimately, however, I felt that while I had a holy obligation to vote, I had an equally strong obligation to vote “no confidence.” While I agree and disagree with certain elements of every single platform on offer (including the United Arab List), there was no way for me to avoid the fact that none of the parties have earned my vote, or give me any confidence that they would serve the country’s needs – rather than their party’s needs – as members of the 20th Knesset. My white slip of paper indicated to all candidates that while I celebrate the State of Israel, I am offended by the way their politics operates. To that, I will not be a party.

And so, with my hands trembling the way they did in 1996, I placed the white slip into the little blue envelope. I voted, and voted with my conscience, and I am whole with my decision.

May God bless Israel, and grant the members of the 20th Knesset the wisdom, courage and insight to guide this country towards peace, security, economic prosperity and more. As we celebrate Israel on this Election Day, I pray that our leaders deliver on their obligations to serve Israel faithfully and honestly, and that their efforts create an Israel that is truly a Light Unto the Nations.

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