Thirty-five years ago, when Tzvi Shuldiner first emigrated to America from Israel after the Yom Kippur War, his first reaction wasn’t awe, or extreme joy or remorse. It was a bit of confusion.
“People kept saying that in America, the money was growing from the trees,” he said. “My first letter back to Israel, I said I was looking on every tree and I didn’t see any paper.”
Nonetheless, Shuldiner chose to stay, planting roots in Pittsburgh from which his life and family grew. Now, at 67 years old, Shuldiner may gain a right that could reconnect him intimately with his homeland: the right to vote in Israeli elections.
But Tzvi Shuldiner doesn’t want it. And he’s not alone.
In early February, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed the creation of a bill to the Knesset that, at its core, would allow Israeli expatriates to participate in Israeli electoral votes, as part of satisfying a coalition pledge to the Yisrael Beiteinu, the right-wing party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. At present, Knesset members are yet to iron out details that would answer questions about just who the proposed expanded voting demographic would cover.
But those are the questions, it appears, that matter most to local Israelis. To Efrat Avramovich, the schlicha (Israel representative) of the Agency for Jewish Learning, the bill poses more questions than it answers.
“Israelis, after finishing their army service, tend to travel the world. Will they be able to vote if they’re traveling during elections? [Expats included in the bill] would have to be involved with Israel, but what is ‘involved’? Going to Israel once or twice a year? Sending your children to do programs there?” wondered Avramovich, who will return to Israel this summer after three years in Pittsburgh.
“The definition of who could vote could be very large, but it could be very narrow. But how will it be defined?”
This stipulation is the quandary on the minds of many Israeli expatriates living in the states, from students planning to return after their studies to Israelis who have lived in Pittsburgh for decades. For most, though, one thing is clear: to form an opinion on the bill, lines must be drawn as to which expats it will include.
“They will need to define who is a citizen and who is not a citizen. As of right now, you can be an Israeli outside the country for 30 some years without being involved,” said Avramovich. “There’s a lot of, let’s say, baggage to be Israeli.”
Guy Zinman, raised in Haifa, has lived outside of Israel for nearly five years. He’s working on a doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University in computational biology, set to graduate in “well, it’s difficult to say. It depends on me,” he said. “Probably December 2011.”
After graduation, Zinman hopes to hold his first job in the states before eventually returning to Israel. While, to some Israelis, his lack of a set return date should negate him from being included in the bill, Zinman believes that the distinction should be made in a person’s involvement and relation to Israel.
“There are all sorts of things that tie a person to Israel,” he said. “If he is in the country more than ‘X’ number of days, or he is paying social security in Israel, or if he’s serving in the reserve army, for example, then he should be allowed to vote. Or if someone just went for a vacation the week of election, and, say, instead of going to the Eiffel Tower, he’s willing to go to the Israeli embassy and cast his vote, then I think that’s fair.”
But with so many possible stipulations, said Rabbi Ezra Ende of Temple Sinai, an Israeli expatriate from Jerusalem who’s been here with his family for four years, “it just gets too complicated. I’m pretty comfortable with the policy as it is.”
While expats could debate the merits of countless reasons to be out of the country, the question remains: would they even want the right to vote?
Ende says no.
“On the principle level, people outside of the country are not putting their fate in the hands of the government, so it shouldn’t be their right to vote,” he said. “I accept the fact that I don’t have the right to vote.”
Ende’s sentiment, like Shuldiner’s, isn’t uncommon.
“If you’re not involved in the economics, in the education system — if you’re not sending your kids to school in Israel, why should you be able to vote on what they’re teaching in Israel?” said Avramovich.
“I love Israel, and I would do anything for my country,” said Shuldiner, “but I don’t feel I deserve the right to vote. I’m not there.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)