In Israel, voting early and often is sign of a splintered electorate
Israel’s former ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, who was raised in West Orange, is not the only former Greater MetroWest resident who is making an impact on Israel’s election next Tuesday.
Oren is expected to become the first Knesset member from New Jersey, as part of the nascent Kulanu list. But other former NJ residents are volunteering for Israeli parties and casting ballots.
Colgate University junior Adam Basciano, 21, lived in Randolph before college. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initiated the election, Basciano was studying for a semester at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. He volunteered with the Zionist Union, the main opposition party formed when former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni decided to run together with the Labor Party that is headed by Isaac Herzog.
Basciano is doing graphic design, translation, and social media work for Herzog and Livni’s party. He said his desire to get involved in public life in Israel goes back to a trip to the Jewish state he took five years ago on the Diller Teen Fellows program, a leadership program sponsored by Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
“When I found out there would be elections, I saw it as a good way to learn about the Israeli political scene,” Basciano said. “It’s been fun being involved in a campaign and learning about Israeli politics.”
Basciano said he supports the pro-peace vision of Herzog and Livni, and he believes time is up for Netanyahu, who has served as prime minister since 2009 and earlier served from 1996 to 1999.
“Jews didn’t move to Israel after so many years to live in fear of its neighbors,” he said. “Livni has good relations with other countries in the region. Netanyahu has been in office for a while. He has had his time. It’s time for a change.”
Netanyahu’s Likud and the Zionist Union are two of the 25 parties competing in the election. Following the election, how many seats each party will receive in the Knesset will be calculated based on how many votes they get. Ten or 11 parties are expected to pass the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent of the vote, some 140,000 votes.
No party has ever won a 61-vote majority among the 120 seats in the Knesset, so coalitions of multiple parties have to be formed to run the country together.
Alita Ann Mandel, 24, made aliya from Elizabeth in July 2013, six months after the last Israeli election, so she will be voting for the first time. A resident of the Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb Givat Shmuel, she considered voting Likud but is leaning toward the Jewish Home, a right-wing religious Zionist alternative headed by American-born Economy Minister Naftali Bennett.
“I am definitely excited to have a say in who runs my government and to make a difference,” said Mandel, who works as an accountant in Tel Aviv. “But on the flip side, the election has been a little overkill. It has felt really long, and the mudslinging has been totally unnecessary.”
Mandel said she chose the Jewish Home because she wants religion to be taken into account when decisions are made. She said she hopes that after the election, the people of Israel will unite again behind whoever emerges victorious.
“I am living my dream and being part of writing Jewish history rather than watching it on the sidelines,” she said.
Mandel said that in the United States she voted for Republican presidential candidates in a Democratic state, which made her feel like her vote did not matter as much.
“Here, unlike America, every vote counts,” she said. “The two-party system in the U.S. works in theory, but it’s nice to have multiple parties to make sure you will really be heard.”
But 64-year-old Harold Zudick, who made aliya to Modi’in — between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem — from West Orange, said he did not like it that he was already voting for the second time just two-and-a-half years after making aliya. He said Israel’s political system had too many parties and was not stable enough.
“Elections make everything stop here and nothing gets done,” he said. “It’s better to have two parties and governments that last four years.”
Zudick said he would vote for Jewish Home and hopes Israel will have a right-wing government, ideally without the fervently Orthodox parties.
“Herzog is ready to go to the Palestinians in Ramallah, even though there is no one to talk to there,” he said. Palestinian Authority chair Mahmoud Abbas “has been in power for 10 years. His term ended six years ago. We can’t have peace without Gaza being part of the deal, and Hamas controls Gaza and they don’t want to be involved.”
Neal Amsel, who made aliya from West Orange two-and-a-half years ago, said he was still undecided between parties on the Right. He said he wants Netanyahu to stay in power, calling him “a fantastic prime minister.”
“It was important for Netanyahu to go to Congress and get out an important message that needed to be expressed,” he said, referring to the prime minister’s controversial address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on March 3. “If Iran gets nukes, there is nothing to prevent them from attacking the U.S. first. Nobody knows what a madman has in his mind.”
Amsel, who is in his 40s and lives in the Jerusalem suburb Ma’ale Adumim, said it was difficult getting used to having elections so often. The largest parties have gotten smaller over time, which has made it more difficult to govern and has resulted in early elections being initiated well ahead of the four-year terms set for a new Knesset.
“It takes more than two years to get your plan in place and get things done sometimes,” Amsel said. “But I appreciate that I get to vote and have my say about who should be in my government.”
Natalie Rubenstein, a former resident of Short Hills who made aliya to Tel Aviv three-and-a-half years ago, said she does not completely understand the Israeli political system, but said she is proud to be a part of it. Rubenstein, 27, came to Israel on a Jewish Agency program and fell in love with the country.
Two years ago, she voted for the center-left Yesh Atid party of former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, but she is disappointed in the party’s accomplishments. Now she intends to vote for the Jewish Home. Although she is disappointed that Bennett opposes gay marriage — a hot election topic in Israel, where gay marriage is not sanctioned but gay couples enjoy many of the rights of married couples under so-called “cohabitation status” — she was impressed when she heard him speak at an event for English speakers in Tel Aviv.
“It’s important to have a Jewish state where people don’t feel uncomfortable in a kipa,” said Rubenstein, who is not Orthodox. “That’s what makes the country so special. It’s essential to support Israel. I’m absolutely excited to be voting.”