Students at Hunter College in New York partake in IsraelVotes’ online voting. (Photo: Ahron Shapiro)Ian Sherman is the kind of voter that gives political analysts fits.
Like many first-timers in the Israeli elections, Sherman still finds himself among the ranks of undecided voters. After yet another political discussion with friends and colleagues from his school, he throws up his hands. “I don’t know who I am going to vote for,” he tells ISRAEL21c. “I am not just saying that. I’m really not sure.”
What is very different about Sherman is that he lives in New York City, not Jerusalem. He attends Hunter College, and not Hebrew University. Unlike his counterparts in Israel, Sherman’s vote, when he eventually casts it, is not going to count in the Israeli elections itself, but rather will be tallied in a special mock election that is being conducted over the Internet at IsraelVotes.com. Polls were open from March 20 through March 27.
IsraelVotes.com is giving the opportunity for thousands of students around the world to participate in the Israeli electoral process in a way that educates, enlightens and sparks debate, while at the same time engaging the students in Israel’s own national election campaigns, taking place in parallel thousands of miles away.
“If you’re going to vote, you have to do it in an educated fashion, which forces me to learn about what I’m going to be voting for,” says Sherman. “It’s a very practical way to learn about Israeli politics.”
This is the second mock election for IsraelVotes.com. The first, in 2003, drew 16,000 voters from over 70 campuses. Michael Eglash, co-creator of Upstart Activist, an organization that specializes in education and leadership training concerning Israel and co-founder of IsraelVotes.com, says that this year they hope to more than double the level of participation through voting campaigns being conducted over 100 campuses worldwide.
“[Upstart Activist] feels it is important to encourage people to experience Israel’s vibrant democracy and the most effective way to do this is through a mock election,” Eglash tells ISRAEL21c.
While IsraelVotes is a mock election, nobody is ridiculing its importance and global significance. In fact, the results of IsraelVotes 2003 closely resembled the official Israeli election tallies of that year. Moreover, students themselves take the responsibility of casting a thoughtful ballot in IsraelVotes very seriously.
“As future leaders of the world, students should be heard, and our opinions [expressed in IsraelVotes], while they do not officially count, should be heard,” said a New York University student Emily Grunewald.
Organizers are reporting a heavy turnout thus far in spite of the fact that the Israeli elections coincide with mid-term exams at many American colleges and universities.
In America, where politics have long been dominated by a two-party system, students learning about Israel express their admiration for Israel’s Knesset, where even the smallest political parties have their voices heard.
“In many ways, Israel’s democracy is better than America’s,” says Hunter College student Shirly Ulfan. “In Israel, everybody’s vote matters.”
Ulfan says that the IsraelVotes campaign has a special importance on her campus. “Hunter is such a politically-charged campus, and there are so many students here that are [vocally] anti-Israel,” she says. “I think that it is important that they know that Israel exists for a reason and is a democracy like any other democracy.”
Ironically, IsraelVotes has arguably been proven to be perhaps most educational to the most vociferous anti-Israel activists on college campuses. Voter registration for IsraelVotes is open to all, and indeed, the election has attracted the enthusiastic participation of non-Zionist voters at certain colleges.
However, even flag-waving student supporters of Israel note a silver lining. “Among [the non-Zionist voters so far], there were many people who had been completely unaware of the existence of Arab political parties in Israel,” says Jonathan Brostoff, president of the Campus Organization for Israel at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.
These activists, Brostoff says, who had initially hoped to subvert the elections, instead have come to understand and appreciate first-hand the political freedoms enjoyed by all Israelis, Jew and Arab alike. Their participation, in itself, sends out a positive and pro-active message about Israeli democracy that is undeniable, he says.
IsraelVotes, by design, shadows Israeli elections, which only occur every few years. However, Eglash says that the positive effects that IsraelVotes has had among students in 2003 had a lasting impact.
“[Upstart Activist] has had numerous discussions with IsraelVotes  alumni and they were truly inspired and motivated by our initiative to look deeper at the issues facing Israel,” Eglash says.
In the short term, student organizations are planning follow-up programming to build on the momentum in interest in Israel sparked by the elections. Over the long term, Eglash says, many of the student voters have shown an increase in Israel activism and have been inspired to become involved in creative Israel programming by other advocacy organizations.
The massive logistical resources behind IsraelVotes.com’s global student campaign demands an organizational group effort, partnering Upstart Activist with Caravan for Democracy, Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, Hasbara Fellowship of Aish HaTorah, the Jewish Agency for Israel, World Union of Jewish Students, and the Bureau of Jewish Education of Rhode Island.
One of the biggest challenges facing the organizations has been to research the political parties and translate their platforms in order to provide potential voters with the resources to make an educated decision, Eglash says.
The effort has not been in vain, says Ulfan. The mock elections, she says, has created an opportunity to raise the level of Middle Eastern political discourse at Hunter, to give an outlet for passionate Israeli activism while at the same time extending an invitation to others with opposing viewpoints to express their views.
“It’s important that [the anti-Israel activists] know that we want to communicate – even if they don’t want to. [Through the mock elections], we are reaching out to them,” Ulfan says.