“To a large degree the diversity [of ideology] is greater in Israel than even that found in America” – Aaron Sichel of the University of Maryland.Thousands of students on over 50 campuses throughout the United States are experiencing Israeli democracy firsthand by voting in mock Israeli elections in the days preceding Israel’s national election on January 28. The initiative, called IsraelVotes2003 is part of a drive to highlight Israeli democracy and help students understand issues facing the Israeli electorate.

“At every advocacy conference pro-Israel students are told that emphasizing Israel’s democratic nature is key to engendering identification with and support for the Jewish state,” said Michael Eglash of Upstart Activist, the Jerusalem-based organization that initiated the project. “What better way to do that than to let thousands of students participate in Israel’s democratic process?”

On the campuses participating in the projects, students vote on-line at www.IsraelVotes2003.com, a website developed by the organization, which specializes in developing “actionable” pro-Israel materials and helping students become effective pro-Israel activists.

The students organizing the campaign on campus say that this is an effective and fun way of drawing attention to Israel’s democratic nature and the current elections.

“I think one of the biggest surprises to many students is the enormous diversity of ideology that is found in Israeli democracy: to a large degree the diversity is greater than even that found in America,” said Aaron Sichel of the University of Maryland. “IsraelVotes has a lot of potential to educate students, and even teachers (many of whom are ignorant about the Middle East) about Israeli democracy and the workings of Israel’s democratic system.”

Among the universities participating in the program are Yale, Princeton, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Brandeis, Rutgers, Maryland, Boston University, Arizona, NYU, MIT, University of Pittsburgh, and Columbia University.

According to Eglash, most of the campuses will also be running mock elections on the campus as well and setting up polling station on campus while also allowing students vote online. While the aggregated results from all campuses will only be displayed on line on the 28th of January, participants can see a running tally of results from individual schools, most of which will begin voting on January 20.

“This is a fantastic opportunity to illustrate in an experiential way the vibrancy of Israeli democracy,” said Elliot Mathias, director of Hasbara Fellowships which is running many of the on-campus campaigns. “This initiative takes on particular importance now when Israel is charged with ridiculous claims of racism and practicing apartheid. Not only will our campus leaders have the opportunity to educate thousands about the democratic values that Israel shares with the US, they will also put to rest spurious accusations made by Israel’s detractors on campus,” Mathias said.

Students on the campuses are aware of the inevitable anti-Israel protests that are likely to crop up during the campaign.

“We’re prepared for a very negative reaction from anti-Israel groups on campuses where the IsraelVotes program will be running. We believe it’s likely that those groups will resort to their regular chants that Israel “really isn’t a democracy” – certainly that’s an absurd thing to say when you’re standing next to voting booths which offer citizens some of the most diverse political choices in the world. The vast majority of Americans are certainly intelligent and thoughtful enough to realize that, and we don’t believe most students are interested in stale propaganda,” said U. of Maryland’s Sichel.

The IsraelVotes2003 site is continually updated and includes original analysis, information on all political parties such as platforms, slogans, promotional materials, biographies of key political players as well as a dedicated voting database for each campus. Aside from learning about the issues and voting, students can grapple with coalitions building scenarios once the polling is complete.

“By allowing every voice a chance to be heard, Israel actively enfranchises all of her citizens (Jewish and Arab) to exercise leadership in choosing the future direction of the country. I appreciate that enormously because it helps defend us from yet another source of radicalism that could emerge if there was no democracy in Israel, and because it is a model of what other Middle Eastern states should build for themselves. I think the realization that there is one country in the Middle East that shares the values of freedom, of debate, and of open-mindedness can be of enormous educational value,” said Sichel.