With critique and concern, Israelis abroad follow elections
From Boston to Los Angeles to Toronto, Israelis in North America are watching for the winners and losers in Tuesday's ballot.
BOSTON – At 9 A.M. every weekday morning Michael Bar-Sinai, a software engineer who spent most of his life on a kibbutz in southern Israel, sits down at his desk in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The first thing he does is check the news from home, including the latest on the election.
In the last two months that has meant trawling through articles, columns, Twitter and Facebook posts, trying to decipher the unfolding election campaign back home and answering questions like: Why are so many people he knows “liking” Naftali Bennett? Exactly how many center-left parties are there now?
For Israelis following this election from afar, with its multiple new faces, untested parties and promising potential as a watershed political moment, a feeling of disorientation has set in. For those on the center or left, that feeling is compounded by a sense that Israel’s apparent hard-shift rightward is about to lead the country to a bleak, isolated future.
“I’m feeling quite fearful,” said Bar-Sinai, 36, who said he would probably be voting for the Labor party if he were currently in Israel. “Here’s our chance to change the trajectory the state is on. But there is a feeling we are missing a turning point.”
Daniel Robinson, a 48-year-old travel writer, has the perspective of an American Jew who made aliyah about 20 years ago but most recently has been living in Los Angeles.
“If you watch the elections from here there seems to be a total disconnect between the discourse taking place within Israel and what is relevant to the American Jewish community – and a disconnect between the discourse in Israel and what is relevant to the rest of world in terms of democratic values, political interests, and the way moderates around world would like to develop,” he said.
“This may be the Achilles' heel of the Zionist movement being in the Land of Israel, that it has caused a significant number of Israelis to disconnect from reality and see things on a Messianic plane where what matters is God giving the land to the Jews,’’ he said. Meanwhile, he worries that the two-state solution has been all but abandoned. “It looks like the country is headed to a bi-national state.”
For longtime Benjamin Netanyahu supporters living abroad there is concern that his popularity is being eclipsed by Bennett, the new darling of the right and leader of the national religious party, Habayit Hayehudi.
“I’m not happy about it. I prefer Bibi,” said Tami Dvora, a 65-year-old retiree, who has lived for over thirty years in Los Angeles, using Prime Minister Netanyhau’s nickname.
"I’ve been watching Israeli television and I’ve become nervous at the sight of all these new faces. I don’t like it. There needs to be two parties like in America. Without that, there is this chaos we are seeing.”
Then there are former Netanyahu supporters who have moved further right and are now rooting for – if not physically voting for – Habayit Hayehudi.
“I like that they want to keep Israel as one country that belongs to the Jewish people, because this is what it is,” said Yoel Heistein.
“I feel like everything is going more and more downhill. I think the only way things will get better is to stop talking about the peace process and take care of the people who live in Israel,” he said.
Heistein, 35, has for the last ten years lived in New York, where he runs a chain of stores selling sunglasses. A “former leftist,” as he describes himself, he went to a private school in Jaffa where Jews, Muslims and Christians studied together. It has since closed down.
He said his political outlook was shattered for good in 2004 when a suicide bomber detonated himself at the Carmel market, Tel Aviv’s biggest open-air food market, at a cheese stand not far from where he was shopping.
Speaking from Toronto, Ella Daniel, a 33-year-old Meretz supporter put it this way: “I think, in a way, the country is changing, and I don’t like the way it is changing.
“I keep wondering if things look worse from afar than from within. I feel like things are going from bad to worse and hope that is [just] my perspective,” said Daniel.
“But most of my friends back home say, ‘No, it looks bad from within as well.’”
Among Daniel’s many concerns are that the center-left splintered and could not find a way to unite while the Likud dropped most of the long-time moderates from its party list in favor of candidates who represent the hardline right.
“What the occupation did to us all these years was to create a set of values I hate and I see those values in this election,” she said.
She has seen a different model in Canada, where she has been living for the last year-and-a-half during her postdoctoral studies in social development. Here, her closest colleague is a woman of Egyptian-Afghani descent who wears a hijab. It's a friendship that she said could only have been formed far from the tensions of the Middle East.
“I see the cultural diversity that is so accepted here. Because minorities are accepted there is less room for them to be extremists themselves,” said Daniel.
Meanwhile in Cambridge, near Boston, Bar-Sinai has gained an appreciation of the American political system after experiencing his first election season here.
“We could see the elections in the United States were really about substance. They had debates and they were well-moderated. You felt informed. If I had to vote in the U.S., I would know what the platforms were,” he said.
“In Israel this just does not happen,” he said, adding he is bothered that the Likud-Beiteinu, the leading party, has no platform on their website. “It makes me feel like it’s a wannabe democracy going through the motions of democracy, but we are not there yet.”
As an unprecedented number of undecided Israelis fret about the future of the country ahead of Tuesday’s election , those abroad have it easier in at least one way.
“When you are here you can watch but you're left off the hook," Robinson said. "You can vote in your mind for the party you wished existed rather than have to compromise and vote for one of the parties that does."