When I was in the seventh grade, I had this t-shirt that said in brilliant neo-Hippie psychedelic colors “Vote!” I wore it constantly even though it would be another six years before I would have a chance to exercise my democratic rights.
When my time came, I became a diligent citizen. I voted whenever I could: national, state, city contests. There were tax reforms, bond issues and local referendums. I voted absentee ballot if I was out of the country.
But at the end of the day, something always felt missing. The issues just didn’t seem all that important. Where was the life and death drama in the question on whether to build a new library? Republicans, democrats…the result seemed basically the same. I know I wasn’t alone: voter turnout in the States continues to drop. People just don’t feel their vote makes a difference.
Not so in Israel.
It may be cliche to say, but the issues here really do matter. Life and death is not just a figure of speech. Six months ago, our cousin, Marla Bennett, was killed in the terrorist attack at Hebrew University. If the policies of the government were different, could her death have been prevented? It’s not an easy question, nor necessarily one that even has an answer, but it can’t be ignored either.
Similarly, when we talk about tax reform in Israel, we’re not debating over a couple percentage points here or a new set of mortgage deductions there. The average employee here hands over upwards of 65% of his income to the government, from income tax itself to social security to mandatory health contribution. And taxes lately are going up, not down. So when a politician proposes a tax cut of, say, 30%, we sit up and listen.
Maybe that’s why voter turnout is always so high: the 1996 election drew Israel’s highest ever participation level – a whopping 79.3%. Elections can also be decided by a very slim margin – in that same election Benjamin Netanyahu bested Shimon Peres by less than 1%. In Israel, it seems, your vote really does make a difference. That was never the case back home – until recently, of course, with the Gore-Bush race hanging on a few Miami chads.
There’s also the fact that we seem to have elections more often. That’s not necessarily a good thing. We’re supposed to vote in a new Knesset every four years, but in the last decade, not a single government has lasted out its term. The result is that we have ping-ponged between the vastly different worldviews of our elected leaders in each of most recent contests: Rabin-Netanyahu-Barak-Sharon.
Still, there is something I do miss from the “old country” - the simplicity of the voting system. It may have been staid, but the decision for all but the most radical among us was basically between the big two parties. In Israel there are so many parties (28 at last count), it’s like keeping track of a fraternity pledge week at a big southern university.
To make matters even more complicated, you don’t vote for the parties themselves, you vote for their code letters. Which have nothing to do with the party name.
So, for example, the far right National Union is “lamed” – we usually see that in Israel on the back of drivers’ training cars (short for “learner”). Is there a hidden message here?
Anti-religious party Shinui has “Yesh,” deceptively close to “Yesha,” the acronym for the West Bank and Gaza which Shinui would most definitely like us to pull out of.
Labor’s code letters spell out the Hebrew for “Truth” and Yisrael B’Aliyah has “Yes.” So do I vote for the truth? Or just say yes?
But in the end, the feelings of anticipation, the tantalizing exhilaration that I had way back in the psychedelic “Vote!” days of my legally underage youth are alive and well as I hit middle age in the Middle East.
And because this is Israel, a country I consciously chose to move to, not just the place I was born, my pride and patriotism have swelled in ways I never experienced before…or expected. Once upon a time, I believed your first time is always your most memorable. Now I know it’s all about love.
So when I walk into the polling booth later today, and stand in the long line of other voters to cast my ballot, I know that, for better or worse, Israel is a real democracy and my vote will have a profound effect on the real lives and deaths of our friends, families and neighbors.