The Vote – Right or Privilege?

Who would dare to suggest that those who did not serve in the Israel Defense Forces, who did not pay Israeli taxes, and who only on occasion looked at the rest of us from far away should participate in determining our fate.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on February 16, 2010.)

One might have thought that Zionists had long since become almost an endangered species in Israel. But it turns out that many of them were only asleep, and they have suddenly awoken from their slumber with a vengeance, enraged by the idea of a Knesset bill that would enable Israeli citizens who are abroad on Election Day to participate in the vote.

These old-time Zionists still seem to be living in the early days of the State of Israel. In those good old days, the only people traveling abroad were either government ministers or senior bureaucrats, or else those who had decided to turn their back on the Jewish state and bought one-way tickets to other lands, where they intended to seek their fortune. “A fall-out of weaklings” is what Yitzhak Rabin called them.

Who would dare to suggest that those who did not serve in the Israel Defense Forces, whose children were not going to serve in the IDF, who did not pay Israeli taxes, and who only on occasion looked at the rest of us from far away should be enabled to take part in our elections and participate in determining our fate – the fate of those who had the courage to stick it out and continue to bear the burden of living in a beleaguered Israel, still threatened by enemies? Would that not be a betrayal of the Zionist ideal?

The outraged Zionists find themselves in good company on this issue, joined by post-Zionists, non-Zionists and even anti-Zionists. They are all up in arms, incensed by the suggestion that Israeli citizens abroad on Election Day should be permitted to participate in the election.

Are they right? Should only those who complete their compulsory military service and pay their taxes in Israel be permitted to participate in the country’s elections? But if so, what about the many who, for one reason or another, do not serve in the IDF, or else have exploited one of the many loopholes in the Israeli tax code to avoid paying their taxes here? Should they be deprived of the right to vote? Is the vote the right of every citizen, or a privilege to be awarded only to deserving citizens?

As a matter of fact, under present law, neither service in the IDF nor the payment of taxes in Israel is a requirement for eligibility to vote in the elections. The only requirement is that you have to physically be in Israel, or areas controlled by Israel, on Election Day. You may have come from far away, even at somebody else’s expense, to cast your ballot, and you may have no intention of resuming residence in Israel, but you still have every right to vote. You may even be serving time in prison, convicted of having committed a crime, and still you can vote. This is no privilege awarded to deserving citizens; it is a fundamental right, as long as you happen to be here on Election Day.

Nor is that all. Current law provides that if you are a member of the diplomatic service, or a member of a maritime crew, you can vote even if you are abroad on Election Day. But what about all the others? What about the youngsters who have completed their military service and gone abroad to see something of the world? The aircrews, pilots and stewards who happen to be abroad on Election Day? The students, post-doctoral scientists and professors on sabbatical? All those who work for Israeli companies but are temporarily stationed abroad? Even some of our media – which is raising heaven and earth against the proposed law – have correspondents stationed in world capitals. And the tens of thousands of Israeli tourists, don’t forget them. Some of our old-timers have not yet realized that we are living in the age of globalization, and at any one time well over 100,000 honest-to-goodness Israelis are probably abroad.

This raises two questions. What facilities should the government make available so that all honest-to-goodness Israeli citizens abroad on Election Day, and not only those fortunate enough to work for the Foreign Ministry, will be able to exercise their right to vote? And how can you differentiate between the real red-blooded Israelis who happen to be abroad and those who still hold valid Israeli passports but have long ago bid farewell to Israel?

The solution to the first question has been found by many democratic governments throughout the world that have made arrangements for their citizens to cast absentee ballots if they are away on Election Day. As for the second question, a little creative thinking will yield a system that will filter out most of those who have left Israel permanently. That should satisfy the Zionists. As for the anti-Zionists, nothing will satisfy them.

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