Israeli Elections Baffle Rookie Immigrant Voters

Recent arrivals unsure not only whom to vote for, but also where to vote and what happens after the polls close.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten
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Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

For some new immigrants to Israel, the electoral process can seem a bit confusing, if not downright absurd—you mean the party that wins the most seats in the Knesset doesn’t always get to form the new government? This is especially true for immigrants from places with a winner-takes-all voting system like the United States.

“They offer ulpan [intensive Hebrew course] to us, but they should offer some kind of political course as well,” said Jamie Geller, the celebrity cookbook author who moved to Israel from New York with her husband and five children in August. “This whole parliamentary system is not an easy system to grasp for a newcomer."

Geller, who said this week she and her husband Nachum plan to vote on January 22 but declined to reveal for whom, is not the only one scratching her head. Many first-time voters interviewed this week told Haaretz that they were excited to make their voices heard but felt uncertain: not only about whom to vote for, but also about where to vote and what happens after the votes are counted.

Paul Shindman of the Israel Project, a nonpartisan educational institute, attempted to demystify the process in a recent presentation to new immigrants in Jerusalem that was sponsored by Nefesh B’Nefesh, the immigrant assistance organization. He will give the same presentation again on Tuesday in Zichron Ya’akov.

A native of Toronto and a former journalist who covered six national elections in Israel, Shindman explained the ins and outs of the democratic process and highlighted a number of online resources in English, including the Central Elections Committee website, which has detailed information about the electoral system. As of yesterday, however, an English-language version of an instructional video about how to vote was still “under construction."

The multi-party system is not as complicated as it seems, Shindman told the crowd. “Thirty-eight parties registered but don’t worry, several of them have combined their lists, so instead of 38 there are only 34,” he joked.

In an interview, Shindman noted that Anglos tend to be “engaged and involved in Israeli politics,” with several Anglo candidates appearing on major party lists. “I’ve always found that Anglos coming from countries where democracy is taken seriously bring that [attitude] with them,” he said.

While there are no reliable statistics on how many English-speaking immigrants live in Israel, Shindman predicted that voter turnout among Anglos who hold citizenship will match or surpass the national average, which was 65 percent in the last election in 2009.

Mandy Mouallim, who immigrated to Israel one and a half years ago, said she planned to vote this month for the first time in her life. “I think Israel makes you more politically aware because everyone seems to be talking about political issues,” said the 24-year-old London native. “It’s the first time I actually care enough to vote."

Some first-time voters said their political loyalties have shifted since moving to Israel.

One new immigrant from Washington, D.C., who asked not to be identified, said she intended to support the conservative Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu ticket, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite her normally liberal views.

“I used to be really left-wing back in D.C., but after I came here I changed my mind,” said the woman, who lives in Tel Aviv. “I had never experienced a rocket falling in my city before,” she said, referring to the attacks by Hamas during Operation Pillar of Defense.

Charles Perez, a 21-year-old Jerusalem resident from Toronto, said he planned to vote for Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party—once he figured out where his polling station was located.

“I guess whoever gets elected is the guy that can make the best teams,” Perez said when asked to explain the concept of a coalition government, adding, “It is a lot more confusing than back home."

Another barrier to Anglo political engagement in Israel is language. Milton Rieback, a native South African who moved to Israel one and a half years ago and lives at Kibbutz Masada, said he had a difficult time deciding which party to support because of the lack of campaign materials in English. “I think if my Hebrew was better I would probably be more in the loop,” he said. Among the dozens of campaign ads that began appearing on television this week, only one was mostly in English; the ad, by Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu, contained snippets of Netanyahu’s speeches before the U.S. Congress and the United Nations.

For Geller, the cookbook author, voting represents an opportunity to further assert her new Israeli identity.

“It’s exciting that we came in an election year,” said Geller, whose family was active in politics when she was growing up in Philadelphia, hosting fundraisers in their home for the then-mayor, Ed Rendell of the Democratic party. “It really feels like you have a chance to be part of the country."

Ballots behind a voting booth at a polling station.Credit: Tess Scheflan
Paul Shindman explaining the electoral system to immigrant voters in Jerusalem on January 2.Credit: Laura Ben David
Immigrant voters listening to Paul Shindman in Jerusalem on January 2.Credit: Laura Ben David

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