New Israelis face balagan at the ballot box

New Israelis face balagan at the ballot box

Election Day featured plethora of parties, and a race to the finish line

Golda Meir once joked that in Israel there are three million prime ministers.

Disagreement is a national past-time for Israelis. As famed novelist Amos Oz told a mission from the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ this fall, “You can’t get two Israelis to agree with each other. It’s difficult to get one Israeli to agree with himself.”

The situation creates a convoluted climate for politics. The Israeli electoral system, especially through the eyes of a new immigrant, is beyond confusing. As I write this column on the eve of the 2013 Israel elections — taking place Jan. 22, as this issue of NJJN goes to press — I count myself in very good company with the nation’s politically perplexed population.

There are no fewer than 17 parties currently operating in the Knesset, and 32 parties running in the election. The system is based on proportional representation, which means that any party that earns more than 2 percent of the vote enters parliament. Coalitions further complicate Israeli politics, as parties often align with parties on opposite sides of the political divide. Voters elect a party list rather than a particular candidate. To further confuse matters, politicians are sometimes reincarnated from election to election with a completely new party name. Some of them are even reincarnated from prison.

For former New Jersey residents living in Israel, navigating the political balagan — or free-for-all — is a rite of passage. “We are still confused, and the election is tomorrow,” said Avi Mandelbaum, who moved from Highland Park to Moreshet in the Galilee region a year-and-a-half ago with his wife, Michal, and their three daughters.

Although this will be their first parliament election, the Mandelbaums had a taste of ballot box confusion on a regional level. “Some friends of ours ran for a municipality election in Moreshet. My wife accidentally voted for the wrong party because the candidates’ names were not listed, just the party name, which she didn’t know.

“Luckily our friends still won by 76 percent,” he said.

Isaac Perelmuter, who moved with his wife, Wendy, from West Orange to Modi’in a year and four months ago, said the sheer number of political parties is overwhelming. The ulpan where he and his wife study Hebrew held a mock election to help indoctrinate new olim. “The only upside to Israeli politics is that there is only a month of electioneering, so you deal with the pain for only a month, unlike in the States, where it’s two years,” he said.

It’s been more than 12 years since Ronda Israel made aliya from Highland Park to Modi’in, and the political landscape is still bewildering, she said. A week before the election, she attended an English-language debate in Jerusalem by top party officials. The program, one of several held throughout the country for new immigrants, drew more than 1,000 people.

“When I got home that night I told my husband that I couldn’t have paid for a more entertaining evening. The crowd booed, the candidates were very vocal, and two people were escorted out for heckling. It was absolutely hysterical,” she said.

My Israeli mother-in-law, a longtime supporter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, considers it her job to ensure that my husband and I vote responsibly. “You haven’t been here long enough to understand the politics and make your own decisions,” she told us. “So I want you to vote for Bibi this year, and then do whatever you want in the next election.”

My husband told her, with his best poker face, that after careful consideration he would cast his vote for the Green Leaf party, which proposes the legalization of marijuana.

She looked at him as if he were, well, Israeli.

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