A week before Election Day, several dozen Jewish Israelis, most in their 20s and 30s, gathered around the bar of a hip basement club in Tel Aviv waiting for the guests of honor to arrive.
The event was billed as a chance for undecided voters to hear the candidates and for those already decided to mix and mingle with them. More than an hour and a half past the scheduled start, the two candidates finally showed up, and as they entered, Dov Khenin and Aida Touma-Suliman received a loud round of applause.
Khenin and Touma-Suliman are both members of Hadash, the Arab-Jewish (but mainly Arab) communist party that recently linked up with three Arab parties to form the Joint List. According to recent polls, the ticket is expected to win 12 or 13 seats in the 120-seat Knesset and has a decent chance of coming out the third largest party. Khenin, who is Jewish, and Touma-Suliman, who is Arab, are keen on getting more Jews to vote for the slate; the event at the club is part of this effort.
Who are these Jews who are determined or are considering to vote for the Arab list? Many are voters on the far left who have traditionally cast their ballot for Hadash. According to Rachel Leah Jones, a longtime Balad voter — An Arab partying the joint tickets that calls for a state for all its citizens — the overwhelming majority are from Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Haifa, with a smaller group in Jerusalem.
“You don’t have to be a sociologist to figure out that by and large we’re talking about voters with above-average incomes and education, predominantly Ashkenazi, who come from the arts and humanities and are a kind of intelligentsia,” says the 44-year-old American-born filmmaker who grew up in Israel.
“Making a choice as an Israeli Jew to step away from Zionism is a privilege, and you have to feel safe in your society to make a choice like that because it’s a serious minority position. So these are definitely people who feel they don’t have anything or much to lose by coming out about their decision to vote for this list.”
It’s hard to know exactly how many Jews vote for Arab parties in Israel, but Hadash is thought to draw between 6,000 and 10,000 Jewish voters each Election Day, and Balad several hundred to 1,000. In the last election, 3.8 million Israelis voted, the vast majority of them Jewish.
Giving Labor and Meretz a miss
The other Arab parties have never attracted a meaningful number of Jewish voters. Joint List campaigners hope that in Tuesday’s election the Jewish vote can contribute an entire extra seat to the ticket (that could be around 25,000 votes), though they realize it’s a long shot. The Joint List’s Hebrew-language Facebook group had close to 1,000 members at last count.
Ruthie Pliskin, a 32-year-old doctoral student in social psychology at Tel Aviv University who voted for Hadash the last two times, says she feels it has become more legitimate for Jews to vote for non-Zionist parties.
“I don’t get the backlash I used to,” she says, speculating that this itself may be a backlash against incitement against the country’s Arab minority since the Gaza war last summer.
“This government has made it legitimate to hate Arabs, and many people are finding it hard to accept this reality," she says. "For them, the idea that the Joint List could become the third largest party in the Knesset is hope-inducing.”
This will be the first time Noam Tirosh votes for a non-Zionist party, having always cast his ballot for the more mainstream parties on the left, either Labor or Meretz. A 32-year-old doctoral student in communications at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, Tirosh says his is in many ways a protest vote.
“It was the Jewish majority represented in the Knesset that forced the Arab parties to unite by raising the minimum threshold to get in, so my feeling is that if they forced them into this, as an act of solidarity, I’m going to vote for them,” he says.
Beyond that, he believes it’s the only slate that strives to tackle Israel’s growing racism problem. “And that to me is the most important issue to be dealt with today,” he says.
The thought that the Joint List could emerge as the third largest party and even lead the opposition in the event of a national-unity government is also titillating for him. “Just imagining [Benjamin] Netanyahu having to brief [Joint List chairman] Aymen Odeh before the next war in Gaza – now that’s going to be a game changer,” Tirosh says. (The prime minister is required by law to brief the head of the opposition during wartime.)
Like many Jewish supporters of the Joint List, Tirosh is concerned that his vote for the Arab ticket could be the missing vote that drives leftist-Zionist Meretz under the 3.25-percent electoral threshold, keeping it out of the Knesset. “I certainly won’t be happy if Meretz doesn’t get in, but that’s not a good enough reason for me to vote for them,” he says.
The underprivileged and the weak
Ayelet Ben-Yishai, a 47-year-old lecturer in English literature at the University of Haifa, will be voting for the Joint List but without a full heart. Ben-Yishai says she has always voted for Hadash and without compunction. But this time, like many progressive-minded Jewish Israelis, she has reservations about voting for a slate that includes the nationalist Balad and people from the Islamic Movement, with its anti-feminist and anti-gay bent.
“Still, for me right now, the most important thing is to fight those who are trying to drive 20 percent of the population here out of civil society and to delegitimize them,” she says. “I certainly have many reasons not to vote for the Joint List and to vote for Meretz, but I see protecting Israeli civil society as the important objective today.”
Echoing this sentiment, Daria Shualy, a mother of two from Tel Aviv, says she feels a moral obligation to vote for the Arab slate. “For me, the prime motivation is to give my vote to the most underprivileged and weakest segment of society,” says the 42-year-old web entrepreneur who has typically voted for Hadash.
Orly Noy represents a tiny minority within the already small minority of Jews who will vote for the Arab ticket: She is Mizrahi, a Jew with roots in the Middle East or North Africa. The 44-year-old Iranian-born translator voted for Balad in the last election but cast her ballot across the spectrum in previous races.
Noy belongs to a small group of Jewish intellectuals from Muslim countries who see a natural alliance between themselves and those they view as the other underdogs of Israeli society.
“The emergence of this new joint ticket presents an opportunity to break the old alliance with the Ashkenazi Zionists and form a new one with the Palestinian citizens, creating an entirely new balance of power in the country,” she says.
Matan Kaminer would never vote for a Zionist party, so he didn’t have trouble deciding this time around either.
“For the past 15 years I’ve been active in Hadash, but now, because the Joint List will be an even more powerful force in the Knesset, I feel more motivated than ever to vote,” says the 32-year-old doctoral student in anthropology. “There is a real opportunity now to make a difference.”
For some undecided voters on the left, though, crossing over to the non-Zionist camp is still too daunting. Eitan (who asked that his full name not be used) was among the crowd in that Tel Aviv basement club, even though he has already made his decision.
“I did consider voting for the Joint List because their message certainly appeals to me. Democracy, peace, equality – I’m all for that,” he says.
“But I also feel a bit Zionist, and I think it’s a good thing that the Jewish people have their own state in the Land of Israel, even though we definitely don’t need the entire Land of Israel. My question is this: What does this list offer 70 percent of those Israelis who like me carry some Zionist sentiment?”
Eitan will be voting for Meretz.
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