Voting in the elections always brings out that dormant patriotism.Despite having lived in Israel for more than 20 years, and having built a life and family here, there aren’t too many times that I actually feel Israeli. It’s always been ‘An American in Jerusalem’ kind of existence for me.
One of those occasions, though, that has regularly awakened my dormant sense of ‘Israeliness’ was whenever I donned an IDF uniform and was issued a rifle for the purpose of protecting my country. There’s probably not any time that you feel more a part of a country and a people than when you’re wearing the uniform of its army.
There are other, less dramatic instances, like rooting for fellow countrymen in sporting events like the Olympics or national heroes like Maccabi Tel Aviv in European basketball championships, or Israeli entertainers in the kitschy Eurovision song contest.
But above all, the moments that have ideologically defined for me what it means to be an Israeli is voting in national elections. This is a country where the cliche ‘every vote counts’ is not a cliche. Having voted in many American elections, I find that nothing compares to the vibrancy and urgency brought on by Israeli elections. There’s a feeling surrounding the whole leadup and the process of voting itself that seems to state ‘I could make a difference.’
The campaign leading up to this week’s elections has been scorned in the media as being the most boring and lackadaisical in modern Israeli history. The 20-year-old daughter of family friends told me on Shabbat that she’s not planning to vote in this week’s elections (her first as an eligible voter) because she just doesn’t think the outcome is that important.
And indeed, if it can be judged according to the number of banners hanging from porches and bumper stickers on cars, there does seem to be a noticeable lack of interest among the population. Maybe the polls which continue to show a commanding lead for the upstart Kadima Party have taken the wind from the sails of would-be contenders – the Likud, Labor or Israel Beitenu.
However, these elections – contrary to my friends’ daughter’s view – are indeed as fateful as any past campaigns in the country’s tumultuous history. At a briefing for reporters last week, Hebrew University Professor Reuven Hazan succinctly explained that on the contrary, Israel is unique among the world’s democracies. Only in Israel, he said, are voters facing existential questions when they enter the ballot box.
Hazan pointed out that acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the head of the party slated to form the next coalition, has said that among his plans are to change the borders of the country within his four-year term of office. Imagine if that was on the agenda in the US or Canada?
Despite the pre-campaign prognosis that, for the first time, the focus of the voters’ concerns would shift away from security towards the critical social issues facing the country, a number of factors have kept the conflict-related issues on the front burner – like last summer’s disengagement, the election of Hamas as the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, and a sense that standing still is more dangerous than moving in one direction or the other.
For those reasons and more, Israelis tend to take their voting very seriously. The last elections in 2003 saw a 68% voter turnout, and Hazan said he wouldn’t be surprised if this week’s tops 70% – despite the apparent
lethargy in the streets.
Those figures are all the more impressive if you calculate that out of the 5 million registered voters in the country, approximately 700,000 of them are abroad. And with no absentee voting allowed, the percentage of eligible voters who are actually in the country and go to the polls increases drastically.
Election day is a national holiday – with workplaces and schools closed. Aside from Independence Day, it’s the only real ‘day off’ that’s not a religious holiday – an almost carnival-like day in which secular and observant Israelis alike, Jew and Arab, young and old, can revel in the deep-seated fabric that binds the multitudes of different kinds of Israelis together. Picnics, barbecues, hikes, and family get-togethers are ways that Israelis on election day reaffirm to each other and themselves that despite the hardships and uncertainties – or maybe because of it – they have earned the right to enjoy their country for a day.
So, on Tuesday, along with most of my fellow Israelis, I’ll walk to my polling station at the nearest grammar school in my neighborhood, and cast my ballot, assuming I’ve figured out which party to vote for by then. It’s a right, responsibility, and privilege that I won’t take lightly, because I know that my vote will count, and the quality of my children’s and grandchildren’s lives could very well be affected by the outcome. On this day, I’m an ‘Israeli in Israel’.