Tzvia Bader has only missed one Israeli election in the 13 years she’s lived in New York. Making the trip back home for Election Day is vitally important to her, despite the logistical headaches it creates for this 48-year-old mom of three. With current COVID-19 restrictions, however, Bader and many other Israeli expats won’t be heading to the polling places next Tuesday.
Ben-Gurion Airport finally reopened last week after being shuttered to almost all international traffic for over a month. However, only 3,000 Israelis are currently being allowed back into the country on a daily basis. So, although the borders are officially open, the reality for thousands of Israelis is that they’re stuck overseas.
Speaking to Haaretz by phone last week, Bader said that even though Israel recently scrapped its controversial exceptions committee, which acted as a gatekeeper for those requesting permission to enter the country, “flights are being canceled and there isn’t really space on the remaining flights.”
Even if she had managed to buy a ticket, the current regulations in Israel would have made it difficult for her to vote, she noted. “I fought to get vaccinated so I’d have the option to come, but it looks like it means nothing in Israel. They don’t recognize [vaccines done abroad],” Bader said. “I can’t come and be in quarantine for two weeks; I can’t leave my girls for two weeks.”
Offir Gutelzon, 45, who lives in San Francisco, has voted in two of the last three Israeli elections. “As time passes, it’s easy to start thinking that it’s less and less important because you’ve been abroad for many years,” he said. “But the more you live abroad, the more you believe that things could be different and you believe you have your contribution to make.”
Although flying was much easier before the COVID-19 crisis, Gutelzon pointed out that it was “still a hassle” to come and vote, and that he would always combine elections with other reasons to be in Israel.
“The idea that you have to come two weeks earlier to be in quarantine, and there are tests, and the risk that goes with it,” is a hassle, he said. “Of course, if we could we’d prefer to vote abroad, but that’s not a possibility,” he added. Unlike countries such as the United States, Israel does not operate an absentee ballot system except for diplomats stationed overseas.
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Gutelzon won’t be able to make the trip for this month’s election, which is Israel’s fourth in two years. “Even if I’d planned ahead and bought tickets, all flights from the West Coast are canceled as part of the failed management of this crisis,” he said. “Airlines don’t change their flight schedules everyday according to the decisions of the Israeli government.”
When Shabi Toledano, 30, checked in for his flight from Frankfurt to Tel Aviv last week, he noticed that about 20 other passengers who’d stood in line with him were turned away, despite apparently having all the necessary documentation. Toledano, who’s lived in Germany for the past few years and previously worked for the Jewish Agency in Belgium, managed to arrive in Israel in time to complete quarantine and vote on Election Day, but the trip required much organization.
“Beyond the financial issue – because the flights are expensive and there’s insurance and COVID tests required beforehand – it’s hard because you don’t really know when you’re coming back,” he said, speaking to Haaretz while still in quarantine. “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
He continued: “A week before the new [reopening] rules, we didn’t know anything. I was sitting and reading the news every day to see what is and isn’t allowed. It’s an emotional roller coaster.”
Toledano took an undetermined amount of time off work. He plans to remain in Israel for another month after next week’s election, using the time to see family after a year away and to get vaccinated.
“It’s very important to me to come now, despite all it entails: taking time off work, not knowing really when you’re going back,” he added.
When the anti-Netanyahu protests swept Israel last summer, calling on the prime minister to resign, many Israeli expats expressed solidarity with the movement and organized rallies around the world.
This Saturday, at 8 P.M. Israel time, they’re planning to take to the streets again, calling on those who can to cast their ballots back home. Protests are planned in, among other places, Vancouver, Washington, New York, Rome, Madrid, Barcelona and Sydney.
Last year, Gutelzon and other Israelis in the United States launched an initiative titled “UnXeptable: Saving the Israeli Democracy,” calling on Netanyahu to step down. Ahead of Israel’s latest election, they built a platform that allows voters to upload personal videos, explaining why they intend to vote and perhaps inspiring others to do so as well.
“We care because we’re Israeli no matter where we live,” Gutelzon said. “And in general, we believe that when you see something wrong in any place in the world – and especially in your home country – it’s your right to make your voice heard.”
He added: “The goal is that, in the end, things will go back to functioning decently ... that the rules of the game are not changed every day for the political benefit of certain people.”
The COVID-19 crisis also prompted Toledano’s decision to return home ahead of the March 23 election, as it made clear to him “that in Israel, it’s very hard to disconnect what’s happening from political considerations,” he said, adding: “It can’t continue like this.”
Although Bader won’t be able to cast her ballot this year, she said the political situation in Israel preoccupies her “nonstop.” The fact that she lives abroad and doesn’t feel it every day “doesn’t make it easier – it’s even more infuriating,” she observed. “The decision-making in Israel is unbelievable and everything is political, it’s scary,” she added.
Bader is planning to attend Saturday’s anti-Netanyahu demonstration in New York and has “zero intention” of quitting. “I know that in Israel everyone’s frustrated – they’re already talking about a fifth election and the system is dysfunctional. But we can’t give up,” she said. “The country has never been in a worse situation.”
For her, the past few elections have been a battle for the future of the country. “I know it sounds funny coming from someone who lives abroad to talk about the future of the country and our children’s future, but I’m a citizen, and my daughters are citizens, and we’re committed to Israel.”
She sums up: “I won’t be discouraged as long as there’s no change.”