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Election Day in Israel

Election Day in Israel

Today was a warm, sunny day—more spring like than winter—and most people were off from work and school for the national holiday of Election Day. In Israel, the day is given as a vacation day in order to encourage voter turnout and also so that parents can bring their children to the polling centers and teach the next generation about voting and its importance.

After three years in Israel, we were finally experiencing Election Day! Excitedly, we arrived at a neighborhood school when polls opened at 7 a.m., almost the first in line. In true Israeli fashion, some of the workers were running late, so we could not enter the building until 20 minutes later. There were three rooms set up and we went to the room based on a code on our voter identification card. We checked in with the worker at the table, presented our “ teudat zehut,” or Israeli identity card, and were provided with a small envelope. We then walked behind a cardboard partition and on the table behind the divider was a container, almost like a shadow box, with stacks of paper, each with a different Hebrew letter or letters (up to three). These letters signified the parties with candidates for election to the Knesset. Some of the letters made sense; others did not (some were idioms and abbreviations not familiar to us.) We chose the slip of paper with our choice on it, put it into the envelope, sealed it, and walked out from behind the divider. The ballot box was placed near the check-in desk, and we slipped the envelope into the box. Voting completed! Very low-tech for a country which prides itself on its high-tech aptitude!

But the actual experience of voting wasn’t the only thing different than in America. Campaign banners are only hung for about two weeks, and television ads play in 40-minute blocks each night for only about a week. That’s all! How refreshing—the campaign is not two years long. Makes the whole political season much more tolerable.

And, of course, people freely talk about who they are voting for. I was on the phone with an insurance company, and as I waited for my computer screen to refresh, I heard this background conversation: “Bibi, and you?” Clearly, the person on the other end of the phone was voting for Benjamin Netanyahu. Even in line this morning, people were debating back and forth the pros and cons of their favorite politicians.

Israel is in a state of flux, and some new leaders may emerge from this election. Case in point: in the summer of 2011 we experienced the Social Justice Protests. Israelis earn very small salaries compared to the prices of most goods and services, and most young people cannot afford to buy homes when the down payment is 50 percent. Additionally, the past year has brought about serious conversations about the ultra-Orthodox influence over the government and how that impacts the lives of all Israelis. For example, the ultra Orthodox can avoid doing army service which is required of all Israelis at age 18; some remain illiterate because their schools create their own curricula, omitting the basics such as science, math, and literature. People are now demanding that the government step in and change these situations for the benefit of its citizens and the future growth of our country.

So, who, you ask, did I vote for? I voted for a liberal party: Meretz, led by Zahava Gal-On. The party emphasizes a “two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, social justice, human rights (especially for ethnic and sexual minorities), religious freedom, and environmentalism.” Especially as a Reform Jew, I could not find it in my heart to vote otherwise—Reform Judaism can only thrive in Israel under a new liberal government: one that will recognize our rabbis, our schools, our weddings, and our gay marriages—and stop treating Progressive Judaism as substandard and inconsequential.

To American Jews, I say, no matter who wins this election, let your voice be heard, and let’s secure a future of prosperity for the Jewish peoplehood and for Reform Judaism in this amazing land.

Here's additional information about the Israeli elections and the country’s system of government.

Nechama Namal (formerly Nanci) lives in Modi’in, Israel, and is a congregant at Kehillat YOZMA, the Reform congregation in Modi’in.

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