For Election Day, I volunteered to be an observer at a polling station; to be precise, I volunteered to be an observer in the West Bank because I was told that the voting process there isn’t sufficiently supervised. I was sent to Betar Ilit, a sprawling ultra-Orthodox city. I had never been there and will probably never return, but what I discovered there upset me beyond what I had expected.
First, I discovered that the right wing no longer has any need to cheat in Israel’s elections. Technology gives the party apparatuses the tools to pull their already loyal followers out of the house and bring them right to the polls. Therefore, the game that Benjamin Netanyahu and the right wing were declared winners of is not democracy. I don’t know what it is, but democracy it ain’t.
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Second, I discovered levels of hatred and hostility that I never imagined possible, let alone ever experienced face to face. Therefore, the worldview of the Netanyahu supporters I met in Betar Ilit is not a Jewish one. I don’t know what it is, but Jewish it ain’t.
The team I was assigned to consisted of six men and one woman: all ultra-Orthodox, all Betar Ilit residents, all in their 20s; all being paid for their work. (Members of the Central Elections Committee – two secretaries, a chairman and two members – paid by the state; the observer – by the Shas party). I was the only secular person and the only Jerusalemite. Not by coincidence, I was also the only volunteer, the only representative of a center-left party, and the oldest.
Throughout the shift, everyone on the team was busy keeping track of the voter lists. As people voted, committee members crossed them off the voter books, as required. But at the same time, they also fed the figures into cellphone apps, immediately transmitting them to the relevant parties’ headquarters.
The Shas observer did the same, whereas the Likud representative (a young Hasidic yeshiva student) filled in the details by hand on Likud charts. Nobody had any problem with this procedure – on the contrary, they all wondered why I found it problematic. I enquired with the people at the civic elections guard (through which I volunteered), who confirmed that it was actually legal. Stinks but kosher.
Throughout the day, the Likud regional supervisor as well as representatives of United Torah Judaism and Shas came in and out of the polling room freely. The former came to get the voter lists from the Likud rep on the committee, United Torah Judaism and Shas people arrived or constantly phoned their reps to receive updates.
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Nobody had any problem with this procedure either – on the contrary, they all wondered why I found it problematic. Again, the people at the civic elections guard confirmed that it was actually legal. Again, stinks but kosher.
Meanwhile, three times during the shift, a party activist, a vote fixer, showed up. He was clearly familiar to the polling team. When, on his second visit, I remarked that he had to keep a distance from the polling-booth curtain, it was I who was reprimanded (for ostensibly talking to a voter, thereby breaching the regulations).
At about 9 P.M., an elderly couple arrived: a scrawny man pushing his sickly and exhausted wife in her wheelchair. They looked as if they had been forced out of bed. When they entered, the elderly man turned to the secretary and asked, with barely suppressed anger, how the party knew that they hadn’t voted yet. Immediately after they left, the secretary turned to me with an embarrassed smile and said, “I know what you’re thinking, but …”
He explained: “It’s clear that they were pulled out of their home to vote, and it’s clear that it’s based on the figures we provide. But what can we do? Everybody does it.” Basically, for everyone in the room, the only criterion for the legitimacy of their actions was that “everybody does it.” Indeed, the fact that the center-left does not do it attests to its pathetic condition – as did my volunteering at a polling station where I presumably had no self-interest. After all, “nobody will vote for you anyway,” they kept commenting, amazed.
A bit later, a young man serving as an observer at the polling station in the adjacent room entered our room. It was his second visit, now aimed specifically at “interviewing me.” With him came a young woman working as a supervisor for the Central Elections Committee. So why are you volunteering? And at the elections? What is that good for?
I explained again. For the hundredth time. In the end he said that he actually liked the idea of volunteering. Maybe he would do it too! But volunteer for what? What’s important enough to him? Maybe he’d volunteer to kill Arab children? – he wondered out loud.
Great idea, he said defiantly, testing me. Why not? After all, he hates Arabs! All Arabs are murderers! They are born murderers! They should be killed, and the smaller the better. What, you don’t think so?
When I replied that I didn’t and asked how anyone could live with so much hatred, the woman explained that “he’s simply a racist. So am I.” For her, it was clear that “racist” is just a matter-of-fact adjective. Simple. As if she had said that they were right-wingers. Or religious. Or ice cream lovers.
And then it continued. Tell me, do you really love Arabs? I said no, I don’t love people based on their ethnic origin. I don’t distinguish between Arabs and Jews, and certainly don’t think that someone should be killed because of their origin.
The guy got angry. “You don’t want to kill terrorists?" I explained that I’m against the death penalty. At this point, everybody was pretty angry with me, save for the United Torah Judaism rep who intervened on my behalf. He mentioned that the Torah prohibits killing. The guy became even angrier and said he hated leftists even more than Arabs. Really hates them. In fact, they should be killed first. All of them.
I looked at him in disbelief, clarifying that I was a leftist and asked whether he wanted to kill me.
Yes, totally, he replied.
I said: You look at me, you see me, you’re talking with me, and you still think I should be killed?
Totally, he said. Leftists are worse than the Arabs, because they’re traitors. They hate the country and work against it. I told him I act out of love of the country – otherwise, I wouldn’t be here, volunteering at a polling station. Furthermore, my son is serving in the army now and he surely wouldn’t be doing so if he didn’t love the country and want to defend it.
The United Torah Judaism rep intervened again on my behalf, saying: This woman’s son is serving in the army, defending you, whereas you don’t even do that.
The guy didn’t miss a beat. He said he hoped my son would be killed in the army, and that he was certain that after that, I’d change my mind and stop loving Arabs. I told him that a dear friend of mine was killed in a suicide bomb attack some years ago, and that only pushed me further to the left. This was too much for everyone present.
One of them asked me, truly amazed now, whether I really believed in peace. Are you serious?
My ally from UTJ said with sadness that he didn’t understand why I stay in the country when it’s evident there’s nothing for me here anymore. Since he was clearly empathetic, I asked him why he didn’t leave. He said he’s a Torah scholar and that Israel is the only place to properly do that. But you, what do you have to do here anymore?
So when they talk of the amazing achievement of the right-wing bloc now or alternatively, of the pathetic condition of the center-left, I nod sadly. But I also feel that this isn’t the whole story. Not at all. The right’s amazing achievement lies in its pretending to share the same basic definition of democracy, morals and values, while in reality it has rendered these concepts meaningless. The center-left is pathetic, on the other hand, because it accepts this story and cooperates with it.
In other words, the game I observed in Betar Ilit may have seemed overall clean enough, pure enough, but in its essence is entirely different from the one I thought I was coming to observe.
I learned that the state has handed the party apparatuses the tools to deepen their hold on their already captive followers. I realized how urgent it is for us to deal with the profound significance of the changing rules of the game. Until we do so, any talk of victory and defeat between right and center-left is meaningless.
Naomi Sussmann is a lecturer in political philosophy, translator and editor.