Ofer Neiman planned to cast a ballot in Jerusalem on Tuesday, but not for a party of his choosing. Rather, he decided to “give up” his ballot, as he put it, for an East Jerusalem Palestinian – a man who doesn’t have the right to vote in elections for the government under whose laws he lives, and which has the power to determine his fate.
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That man is Bassam Aramin, who, like Neiman, is a peace activist. The two are part of a new initiative called Real Democracy, inspired by a similar movement that sprang up in the UK in 2010. There, supporters were asked to donate as it were their votes to people in countries such as Afghanistan and Bangladesh. In just ten days, the group says, about 2,000 Israelis have volunteered to give up their votes by being paired up with Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank or Gaza.
“I always supported Meretz and Hadash,” Neiman explains. “But I came to the conclusion that specific parties by themselves will not bring about any change from the left, and it's more important to emphasize in various ways that these elections are not actually democratic. For me, it’s part of an ongoing worldwide movement to let people know there’s no democracy here, so instead of these false hopes by voting for left-wing parties, I’m voting on someone else’s behalf.”
Critics might say that there is a flawed logic here. Palestinians have voted in elections; Aramin himself voted for the Palestinian Legislative Council in 1996 and in 2006. The latter wasn’t easy, because the Israeli government and the Jerusalem municipality didn’t want Palestinian Authority voting booths dotting the officially united capital, even though the right of East Jerusalemites to cast ballots was stipulated in the Oslo Accords. And with Hamas emerging as the victor, it was an election many pro-peace Palestinians and Israelis would just as soon forget.
But those elections don’t mean much under the circumstances, Neiman posits. “The Palestinian elections are meaningless, because they’re still under Israeli occupation and they have no sovereignty,” he says.
Aramin, whose 10-year-old daughter Abir was shot and killed in 2007 by a border policeman, is a co-founder of Combatants for Peace and is involved in the forum that brings bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families together. He knows that Real Democracy’s campaign will be dismissed by many as a fringe phenomenon. But he hopes that it will make people think twice about accepting the status quo.
“My hope is that a lot of Israelis will start to open their eyes and ask, ‘why are these crazy Israelis giving their votes to the Palestinians, to the ‘enemy,’” he quips. “I hope that through this, more people will realize that what we’ve been living with for almost 46 years is not a normal situation, and it is not democracy. Perhaps this campaign will open up some debate about it.” He asked Neiman to vote Hadash, “because it’s the most serious Arab-Jewish party, and because I like Dov Khenin. He’s always with us, fighting for real democracy and coexistence.”
Shimri Zameret, one of the activists, discovered late Monday that a group of nine Palestinians from Bil’in, a site of regular protests against the West Bank barrier, wanted to participate. Zameret put up a note on Real Democracy’s Facebook page asking for Israelis to give up their vote for the nine, but was skeptical that they’d have enough last-minute takers.
“In 45 minutes, we had nine Israelis come forward. We were all shocked at how fast people signed up,” he says.
Sometimes the Palestinian “match” for the Israeli voter says his or her choice is to boycott the vote altogether. That’s what happened for Zameret, who is voting on behalf of a man named Omar in Hebron.
“It’s a form of civil disobedience. Yes, people get angry at me and say, ‘how do you change the system if you don’t participate?’ But I don’t agree," says Zameret. "Sometimes boycotting is a better way of highlighting the lack of legitimacy of the system.”
Shelly Nativ, 40, who lives in Tel Aviv and works at Open University, was casting a vote for Wajih Burnat, a Palestinian in Bil’in whom she knows from going to protests in his West Bank village. He decided to vote for Ahmed Tibi and Ra’am-Ta’al.
“To have a few million people decide the fate of double the amount of people, that’s not a democracy,” she says. “For me things here have gone so wrong, I didn’t feel comfortable to just go and vote, because I felt that the parties I might vote for couldn’t address the severity of the current situation. So the campaign made sense to me – I can at least give my vote to someone else.”
She hesitates, and moves away from the polling place where she just voted, concerned she could be accused of campaigning too close to the ballot box. “I hope it has some kind of impact,” she adds, lowering her voice. “The positive impact will be if it will somehow diversify the public debate about our state of affairs. It has been very narrow so far.”