Sent to the United States in part to represent Israel’s democratic society, young shlihim, or emissaries, serving with the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ are frustrated that they can’t vote in the next election back home, scheduled for Jan. 22.
Israel doesn’t have an absentee ballot system equivalent to the American one. Israeli citizens traveling abroad on vacation, study, or work can’t vote. The exception to that rule are salaried staff at embassies or consulates, or those working with organizations officially representing the state like the Jewish National Fund or the Jewish Agency for Israel; such workers are permitted to vote at their nearest consulate.
The young emissaries thought they would have the same privilege. They were recruited by the Jewish Agency, and in the past others in their situation have cast votes. Apparently, that was an oversight. According to the rules of the National Election Commission, because they are classified as volunteers and their stipends come from their host community, they are barred from the ballot.
(Other shlihim are, as salaried employees, permitted to vote.)
The senior member of the group of six young shlihim, 24-year-old Rozi Ben Ami, is serving as a “community shliha” following her army service. The others, called rishonim in Greater MetroWest, are designated as shinshinim because they are taking part in their “shnat sherut” or service gap year between high school and the army. Most of them are 18, and the Jan. 22 elections would have been their first opportunity to vote.
The young emissaries serve as cultural ambassadors in schools, synagogues, and other community venues, forging connections and sharing information about their country’s language, music, politics, and lifestyle. This voting issue has given them something different to share, and in true Israeli style, a number of them have been forthright on the matter, speaking out on Facebook and other social media, as well as face to face.
Ben Ami, who is based in Elizabeth, was in Europe accompanying a March of the Living group when reached by NJ Jewish News last week, but she responded immediately by e-mail.
“It’s very important to me,” she wrote. “I’m very concerned about this situation. I think that the Jewish Agency is a good organization that is running a lot of important and amazing programming, but I think on this specific point it is wrong. They should identify us as their employees and make sure we are all voting.”
David Marder, 18, took his complaint to the top: “I wrote on the Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s wall on Facebook,” he told NJJN. “I personally am working very hard to try to get this changed. I feel that it is absurd. We are very involved teenagers who decided to defer their army service in order to donate an extra year of their life to the country.”
He added, “The real absurd thing is that if I would have worked for Jewish Agency and did not volunteer, I could have voted. Hopefully this will be changed, and we can not only be affected by our country’s past, but also affect the future.”
Noga Maliniak, who as a salaried shliha can vote, is indignant on behalf of the youngsters. As executive shliha, based at the federation’s Legow Family Israel Program Center in Whippany, she is an employee of the Jewish Agency working in partnership with the federation.
“I am so upset about this,” she said.
She pointed out that the shinshinim package includes a $250-a-month stipend, health-care costs, and travel expenses. “They were screened by the Jewish Agency, and got their visas through it, and they report back to it,” she said. “They represent the State of Israel. They volunteer a year of their life, and now they are being punished for that? It is very annoying and wrong.”
Tali Aronsky, North American spokeswoman for the Jewish Agency, stressed in an interview with NJJN that the ruling came from the government, not from the agency, and she pointed out that executive chair Natan Sharansky and director general Alan Hoffman have appealed it and are awaiting a response from the commission.