NEW YORK — Ever since she’s been of voting age, Noa Shusterman hasn’t missed an Israeli election. So even though the 30-year-old has been living in New York for the past two and a half years, she knew this time wouldn’t be any different.
“As someone who’s very involved politically and constantly follows what is going on in Israel, this was very important to me,” the Kfar Sava native tells Haaretz, “and I think it’s my civic democratic duty to go and vote.”
Unlike many other countries, Israel does not allow its hundreds of thousands of citizens abroad to cast absentee ballots (only official Israeli emissaries stationed overseas can do so). Estimates of how many Israelis reside in the United States are varied, and range from 100,000 to 1 million. But Steven J. Gold, the author of “The Israeli Diaspora,” writes that Israeli expatriates often become “transnationalists,” moving fluidly between their homeland and adopted country.
Shusterman came to New York in 2016, studying for a masters in international relations at New York University. She has been working for a local group organizing student trips to Israel since graduating in 2018, but the terms of her scholarship require her to return to Israel this summer.
“I never really left Israel,” she says. “Whoever gets elected, I’m going to be living under the new government — so it’s very important to me to make use of that small right that I have” to vote.
Ido Dembin, who has lived in New York for 18 months, is another Israeli who decided to travel home for the April 9 election. Voting “is fundamentally and essentially very important to me,” he says. “I have the opportunity to influence what my country will look like in the future, especially at a time when I would like for things to change, so I feel obligated to take that chance.”
For 42-year-old Kobi Cohen, April 9 is also a chance to bring about change. He moved to the United States eight years ago with his wife and two young sons for a job in logistics, but quickly realized he had to “go where the heart was” and switched to working for an organization that connects Israelis and American Jews through culture.
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“I’m a big believer in the democratic system,” says Cohen. “It’s important for me to go vote because I want to move back. ... Physically I am here, but my heart is in Israel. Voting in elections is not only the most important right we have, but it’s also the most important duty we have.”
For all of these Israelis, spending several hundred (if not several thousand) dollars just to go to the polls next month was an obvious decision — although the fact their employers understand their desire to vote and gave them time off made it all somewhat easier.
Connect IL, a group that organizes educational and cultural events for Israelis in New York in order to retain their connection to Israel, has been encouraging them to fly home for Election Day.
“It’s an activism tool aiming to call on Israelis to plan their vacations around the election,” explains Rotem Lev-Zwickel, the group’s co-founder. “If we are already going for Passover, or if we already plan to go to Israel once a year, let’s make sure it’s around the election.”
As part of the efforts, Connect IL produced a short, humorous video (in Hebrew) with the message: “Plan your vacation around the election.”
“The goal is not to steer people right or left; we really are not political,” Lev-Zwickel stresses. “But if [Israel’s] future is important to you and you see a connection and a possibility that someday you’ll go back, then go and vote. Those people are our target audience.”
Although he’s always supported the Labor Party, Dembin doesn’t know who he will vote for this time around. “I’m skeptical about the chances of that happening, but I’d really want to change the current government,” he says.
In a regular election, the topics that drive his choice are ideological, ranging from “security and diplomacy to civil issues and economic issues, in that order. But in this election, most of all it’s important for me that Israel stays a democracy afterward.”
Cohen, who calls himself “left-wing” and even writes a regular column in an Israeli newspaper, says that living abroad has opened his eyes to issues he believes require major change — such as the important role American Jews play for Israel.
“U.S. Jews are our rock and I think this current government is damaging that, and in a way has divorced the community here, favoring evangelicals out of short-sighted political considerations,” he says. Cohen admits that he “loathes” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “People make mistakes, but he is such a morally rotten person. The corruption under him, the lack of morality in the Likud party right now — that’s not the direction I want to see Israel go. ... We are the people of the book, we should be holding ourselves to a higher standard.”
He says he is leaning toward Avi Gabbay and the Labor Party, “because they are the only ones right now speaking in a clear voice about changing priorities and changing the current government. To say there is nobody to vote for is to free yourself of responsibility,” he adds. “It just weakens the political system.”
Shusterman says her first priority when voting is to put an end to “the complete freeze on everything that has to do with a diplomatic peace process.” She admits she always finds herself hesitating before casting her ballot, but ultimately has consistently voted for Meretz over the years.
Even though she would love to see Netanyahu replaced, Shusterman says this is not her prime motivation for voting. “Every election there is a sort of fatalism where people say, ‘These elections are really going to determine our future,’” she says. “Well, every election determines our future.
“My democratic and civic right does not depend on Netanyahu,” she adds. Voting “is important to me either way.”
‘Staying home is like voting for Netanyahu’
“I am very frustrated with the government in Israel right now,” says a young Israeli woman who works for Google in Silicon Valley.
The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, has been living in California for seven years. She and her husband decided to fly back for the election, bringing their two young daughters with them. They plan on moving back to Israel within a year or two.
Despite the expensive tickets and two 15-hour flights with small kids, she believes voting this year is critical.
“The Netanyahu government, which incites the country to racism, the incomprehensible cruelty of the occupation — these are things I have a hard time with,” she says. “It scares me to live in a place like this, and to raise my kids in a place like this. If there is any chance to replace this government — I almost don’t even care whom with — I’ll take it.
“I feel that, this time, staying at home is like voting for Netanyahu,” she adds.
The debate over whether Israel should allow absentee voting gets reignited with every election cycle. Yet another initiative was presented in 2016, but the Central Elections Committee opposed the bill, citing logistical, financial and practical obstacles.
Although absentee ballots would save expats the expense and hassle of flying home just to vote, not everyone believes it’s the right move.
“Perhaps if we created specific criteria according to which a citizen living outside of Israel for just a year, or who left, like me, to study, would get the right to vote from here,” says Dembin. “But people who have lived here for 10 years or more and still want to influence a country which they are not a part of and don’t live in — that doesn’t sound right to me.”
For some Israelis, though, flying back to vote invokes some internal conflict. The woman from Silicon Valley said she “somewhat ashamed” of her decision to do so, which is why she prefers to remain anonymous.
“As an Israeli who has lived outside of Israel for many years now, I feel it isn’t completely my right to vote,” she explains. “Of course I have a legal right to, but I am not sure it’s legitimate or even moral. There are so many Israelis here who plan to go back to Israel within two years but then never do, and it’s not really fair for them to vote.”
Cohen, meanwhile, says that “giving everyone the right to vote from abroad is nice on paper. But in practice I think that’s a waste of money. I think people for whom it’s important to vote should fly over to vote.”
But Shusterman counters that saying Israelis can just hop on a plane and go vote is somewhat condescending. “I’m well aware that me going to vote has to do with the fact that I have the financial means to do it, the ability to take time off work, and that I’m not married and don’t have children. I don’t have to take a babysitter; I don’t have debt; I don’t have a mortgage to pay,” she says. “That’s privilege, but ultimately we are talking about a democratic right.
“At the end of the day, we all speak Hebrew, we listen to the latest [popular Israeli musicians] Static and Ben-El song when we come home, and we go to Shabbat dinners with the Israeli community. So what if it’s happening in New York and not in Israel?” she asks. “What happens in Israel still affects my life.”