July 28, 2005
It's long been more socially acceptable for Jews to immigrate to Israel than to emigrate out of it. Some Israelis feel that they're abandoning the project of the Jewish state, not doing their part, not facing the same risks as those they leave behind.
So it's somewhat understandable that Israelis living abroad have never been able to vote in Israel's elections, even though other democracies make such allowances for their citizens abroad.
However, attitudes are shifting both here and in Israel. Between 150,000 and 300,000 expatriate Israelis live in the Los Angeles area, and some of them are pushing for the right to cast absentee ballots in Israeli elections. The Council of Israeli Community L.A., a group that organizes local cultural and political events for Israelis, is stoking the debate.
Israel "deals with the question of its own existence on a daily basis," said Moshe Salem, president of the Tarzana-based nonprofit. So it is "in the interest of [Israel] to grant the Diaspora Israelis the right to vote." Israelis in America "have a vested interest." They "want to know what's happening."
Israel maintains about 350,000 Israelis on its voter rolls who can't cast ballots because they live abroad.
"Granting voting rights would unite them around Israel, and means they will influence [non-Israeli] Jews around them," Salem said.
He's discussed the matter with Israeli Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Los Angeles Consul General Ehud Danoch, Israeli Maj. Gen. Doron Almog and several members of the Knesset. Salem reported that all have supported the idea.
Bills expanding balloting to overseas Israelis have been raised and defeated in several recent Knesset terms. In January, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he supported the notion; he even appointed a high-level committee to examine the details, the Jerusalem Post reported.
But earlier this month, opposition emerged from left-leaning Israeli parties, which fear introducing hundreds of thousands of absentee Jewish voters who are generally perceived to be more hawkish. The measure was defeated in the Knesset 25-23. It'll be at least six months before the Knesset can take up the matter again.
Supporters point out that a growing Arab population could eventually eclipse Jewish voters, and Israelis from abroad could act as a counterbalance. Besides, many expats have served in the Israeli Defense Forces, pay taxes to Israel and intend to return some day.
A compromise that would honor individual rights ought to be within reach, given that numerous democracies around the world have successfully preserved voting rights for their citizens abroad. But any policy that could alter the balance of power between left and right and between Jews and Israeli Arabs is destined to be contentious.
"Everybody will be tuning in," said Salem, describing the benefits of Israelis voting worldwide. "In a way, you're affecting the entire Jewry outside of Israel. It's not going to happen overnight, but it is going to happen."
Battling Over Message
The college campus has always been a central battleground for hearts and minds -- and that includes education about Israel. In Washington, that battle is engulfing H.R. 509, legislation being supported by a range of groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress).
The bill would re-authorize decades-old grants that pay for foreign affairs education, while simultaneously creating a new advisory board to review the instructional content of programs receiving funds. The aim, at least among Jewish supporters, is to balance perceived anti-Israel bias with other perspectives.
"What we're having now in the college campuses is basically professors using their desks as pulpits for political propaganda," said Sarah Stern, director of the office of governmental and public affairs for the AJCongress. These academics, she said, are "looking basically at the entire world through the paradigm that America is a colonial hegemonic occupier, and Israel is the persona non grata of nations."
The underlying argument is not new, as right-wing groups have railed for years about professors brainwashing students with leftist ideology. Common complaints feature professors (like Columbia's Joseph Massad) supposedly berating a student about Israeli or Zionist "war crimes," accounts that often turn out to be exaggerated or provoked.
Many professors and Muslim groups, including the Council on American Islamic Relations, vigorously oppose the proposed advisory board as undue interference in academic freedom, because although the board cannot hire or fire academics, its recommendations to the secretary of education would be influential.
Blurring Church-State Separation
A number of Jewish groups are lining up against an education-related measure that could allow the Bush administration to further blur the line of separation between church and state.
At issue is an amendment, HR 2123, which would allow faith-based groups to limit hires to people of their faith in federally funded Head Start programs. Head Start provides child care and education services to low-income families. Amendment supporters, most of them Republican, call the issue "charitable choice."
Jewish groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, are vehemently opposed, saying that charitable choice deviously groups overtly sectarian churches and synagogues together with service providers like Jewish Family Service by classifying all of them as faith-based organizations.
"The rubric 'faith-based' is a ruse," said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council. "They're trying to use the term in order to get pervasively sectarian organizations into play."
If the amendment passes, legislators who side with the Jewish groups might have to vote against the entire Head Start re-authorization, which means hurting the low-income families who benefit from the program.