Missing the Vote by Living Overseas

Claims against the conferral of voting rights to persons once called "Yordim" may be valid, but migration data casts doubt on their central premise.

Israelis who live overseas cannot vote in Israeli elections. Ask why they're not allowed and the most common answer is: "Whoever does not live here and does not face the results of the elections (war, catastrophe, economic stagnation, etc ) does not need to have a voting right."

In moral terms, this claim against the conferral of voting rights to persons who were once called "Yordim" is valid. Yet data on migration compiled by the Central Statistics Bureau casts doubt on the central premise, which holds that Israelis who leave the country have no intention of coming back to it. In other words, it's not clear that the Yordim who leave the country really "leave" the country.

The numerical difference between Israelis who head overseas for a year or longer and those who return to the country after a sojourn overseas for a year or longer is not overwhelming. In 2009, the number stood at 4,900 - that is, 15,900 departing Israelis compared to 11,000 returning Israelis (not counting new immigrants ). And here's the best news: the 2009 figure represents the lowest such migration differential in over 30 years.

When the length of time spent overseas by the 2009 returnees is calculated, the following picture arises: 86 percent of the returnees lived overseas for less than five years (this figure was 90 percent in 2008 ). In other words, these Israelis did not go on "Yerida," they did not leave the country, but rather traveled or worked overseas and then returned home. The figures we are citing here are part of a larger picture regarding Israeli migratory habits - since 2001, there has been a decrease in levels of departure from Israel.

The current picture for departees features Israeli academics who go overseas on teaching and research stints; representatives of government and private bodies who travel overseas to work; businessmen and tourists. The common link between them is the desire to be overseas for a defined period; this desire does not alter their self-perception as Israelis (some of these departing Israelis continue to pay taxes in Israel ). It's true that some of the emigrants have no intention of coming back. Nonetheless, there is no absolute answer to the question of whether it is justifiable to revoke voting rights of all departing Israelis on account of this core group of Yordim which intends to leave forever.

Both sides of the equation have an interest in allowing Israelis who live overseas to vote. For the departing Israelis, most of whom are secular, casting votes in Israel's political institutions is, first and foremost, an expression of their Israeli identity and their continuing ties to the state - a state where they plan to make their future. For the State of Israel, ballots cast by Israelis overseas can be part of a framework for the preservation of civil ties during the departing persons' first years overseas, during the time when they have yet to make a final decision about where they will live.

In order to guarantee that the overseas voters really view Israel as the center of their lives, they can be asked - as a precondition to their voting - to sign a declaration affirming their intention to return and live in Israel in the future. Or the period in which an overseas Israeli will be entitled to vote in elections can be limited to the first four years of foreign residence (various western countries enforce similar conditions regarding expatriate voters ).

Should all of these conditions be fulfilled, the actual influence that would be exerted by ballots cast by overseas Israelis would be negligible. Nobody really knows who to vote for, and four or less years overseas cannot really affect voting patterns. Yet the added value of this change would be significant: The State of Israel would deliver to the departing citizens the message that they are part of our national fabric, and that a home awaits them here.

The writer is a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute