Inside the Grassroots Drive to Get Israel's Arabs to Vote

Arab voter turnout in Israel’s previous election reached a dramatic low. A new campaign hopes to convince Arab Israelis that they ‘don’t have the privilege of staying at home’ on September 17

An Arab Israeli woman casts her vote during Israel's parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019 at a polling station in the northern Israeli town of Taiyiba
Photo by Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP

About half a dozen volunteers are positioned outside the Greek Orthodox Church in the Old City of Ramle, waiting for Sunday morning services to end. Once the doors open, they leap into action.

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“Are you planning to vote?” they ask, as they pounce on the worshippers filing out. “Is your husband? Your wife? Your mother? Your father? Would you like us to call them? Do you understand why it’s really important this time?”

>> Read more: 'A sad moment in our history: Arab voters expected to shun Israeli election in record numbersWhy should an Israeli Arab vote? | Opinion

Activists in Israel working to get out the Israeli Arab vote outside the Greek Orthodox Church in the Old City of Ramle, Israel. August 2019
\ Moti Milrod

One elderly woman says she’d like to vote but doesn’t know where her polling station is located. “Nothing to worry about,” one of the volunteers reassures her. “We’ll find out and make sure you get to the right place.” 

Another confides that though she and her son intend to vote, her husband has lost hope and will be sitting out this election. “Tell him to expect a phone call from me tonight,” says a different volunteer.

At a booth stationed a few feet away, another group of volunteers is handing out leaflets in Arabic. Written on top, in big bold letters, are the following words: “This time we vote.”

It’s a not-so-subtle hint that last time around, on April 9, most eligible Arab voters did not.

Samer Swaid, the executive director of The Arab Center for Alternative Planning and founder of the movement 'Coalition 17/9.'

These young activists willing to brave the ferocious heat this August morning are part of a new grassroots movement aimed at getting out the Arab vote. Its name was inspired by the date of next month’s do-over election: “Coalition 17/9.”

Comprised of 11 organizations active in Arab civil society, it was founded by Samer Swaid, the executive director of The Arab Center for Alternative Planning – a non-profit dedicated to solving land and housing problems specific to this minority population.

Even before the do-over election was called, says Swaid, he was convinced that action needed to be taken to boost voter participation in Arab society.

“I basically started thinking about this on the morning right after the April election, when I learned that fewer than half of all eligible voters in Arab society had cast their ballots,” he says.  “That, to me, is totally unacceptable.”

Arab voter turnout in the last election round reached an all-time low of 49 percent – as compared with 68 percent nationally.

Coalition 17/9 was officially launched on August 1 and according to Swaid includes hundreds of volunteers around the country and dozens of core activists. Swaid, 40, would not specify who was funding the movement but said that Jewish philanthropists from the United States were among his benefactors. In addition to old-fashioned canvassing, the movement is also active on social media and recently launched a billboard campaign in Arab cities and towns.

Coalition 17/9 flyer handed out to potential voters in the city of Ramle
\ Moti Milrod

Its key messages, as summed up by Swaid: “We don’t have the privilege to stay home.”

Located in central Israel, Ramle is one of 25 towns and cities that experienced especially low Arab voter turnout in the last election and, for that reason, has been targeted by Coalition 17/9. Shibli Farah, an activist in the movement and long-time resident, estimates that fewer than 40 percent of the Christian and Muslims Arabs eligible to vote in this mixed Jewish-Arab city took advantage of their basic civic right.

Asked if he’s had much luck dissuading those intent on sitting it out, the 43-year-old Arabic-language teacher cites his latest conquest. “My mother wasn’t planning on voting,” he says. “Not only has she changed her mind, but she’s also promised to get all her friends to get out and vote.”

Coalition 17/9 has set itself a rather lofty goal: Increasing Arab representation in the Knesset to 20 percent, so that it is equal to Arab representation in Israeli society as a whole.  For that goal to be fulfilled, there would have to be 24 Arab members in the next Knesset. Today, there are 12.

Activists in Israel working to get out the Israeli Arab vote in the city of Ramle
\ Moti Milrod

Firas Khawalad, national coordinator for Ajyal – an Arab Israeli youth movement – is responsible for 10 cities and towns on the Coalition 17/9 target list. This past Sunday, he traveled from his small village in the Galilee to Ramle to oversee activities outside the church.

After handing out t-shirts to his volunteers and reviewing some of their main talking points, he takes out a mock ballot and sets it on top of the stand.

“We put this here mainly for the kids,” he explains. “We want them to have the experience of feeling what it’s like to vote.”

“But to be honest, what we’re really hoping,” he adds, “is that if their parents see how much fun they’re having, it might encourage them to vote as well.”

What is keeping Arab voters from the ballot

Among the factors blamed for the unusually low turnout rate in the April election was the breakup of the Joint List of four Arab-led parties into two separate lists – mainly over bickering about placements. That problem appears to have been solved with their recent reunification under the helm, once again, of Ayman Odeh. Another explanation often cited for the relative apathy of Arab voters is growing frustration with the Arab-led parties. Many Arab citizens complain that these parties are too focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and not focused enough on the daily problems of their constituents – among them high rates of crime, severe restrictions on land development and building, and inadequate government outlays for education, infrastructure and social services.

The Joint List's Mansour Abbas, Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi launch their campaign in Nazareth, July 27, 2019.
Rami Shllush

Among those Arab citizens who sit out the elections, surveys show, the vast majority act out of indifference, convinced that their vote would have little, if any, effect on the outcome. Better, they say, to take advantage of the day off to picnic with the family. A small minority – estimated at fewer than 10 percent – refrain from voting for ideological reasons. These boycotters see participation in the electoral process as legitimizing a state and system that deliberately discriminates against them.

Activists like Swaid tend to consider the boycotters a lost cause and would rather concentrate their efforts on lobbying those who have somehow convinced themselves that voting is a useless act. What does he tell them? “First of all, I explain that right now Israeli society is split evenly down the middle, which means that every vote can make a difference,” he says. “But I also tell them that if they’re disappointed with their elected representatives, that’s fine. And that’s just what the ballot box is for – to settle scores.”

Jewish-Arab attempt to shake voters out of their apathy

According to an internal poll commissioned by Coalition 17/9, were the election held today, 56 percent of eligible Arab voters would cast their ballot. That’s a considerable improvement over the last election but still a long way to go.

Swaid believes the reunification of the Joint List is the main factor behind this positive trend.

But certainly not all Arab voters plan to vote for the Joint List. In fact, in the last election, nearly 30 percent of Arab voters cast their ballots for Zionist parties (mainly left-wing Meretz). If it weren’t for Arab voters, Meretz would not have crossed the 3.25 percent electoral threshold. This may very well explain why the center-left Zionist parties have recently been investing special efforts in wooing Arab votes. Swaid doesn’t believe this will necessarily pay off in the form of more support for their respective parties. However, he thinks that by making Arab citizens feel better about themselves, such overtures may help increase the overall turnout.

Coalition 17/9 is not the only organization or movement trying to get out the Arab vote. The Jewish Arab movement Standing Together (Omdim b’Yachad) and Abraham Initiatives, an organization active in promoting shared society for Jewish and Arab citizens, are both involved in the effort. Standing Together has launched an initiative aimed at promoting Arab partnership in the government, while Abraham Initiatives has been helping politicians on the center-left reach out to Arab voters. Another organization that has taken up the cause is Sikkuy – the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality.

Amjad Shbita, Sikkuy’s co-executive director, says that in the next few weeks his organization will launch a special campaign aimed at “tearing apart the false allegations that Arab Knesset members do nothing for Arab society.”

Of all the political parties trying to shake Arab voters out of their apathy, the Joint List, for obvious reasons, is taking the job most seriously.  “We always put effort into getting out the vote, but this time we’re trying even harder,” says Aida Touma-Sliman, a member of the communist faction in the Joint List. “The reason [is] that in recent years, Arab voters have started losing their trust in the system. We saw the effect of this in the low turnout rate in the last election.”

Polls show that among Arab citizens, young voters are less inclined to vote than their parents. That’s the reason the Joint List, as part of its campaign to boost turnout next month, is planning a series of informal get-togethers with top names on the ticket that will be held at cafés popular among this younger crowd. “We need to get people to understand that this is an existential struggle, and that’s why their vote is so critical,” says Touma-Sliman.