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An Israeli voting booth with party slips is shown in this photo from the 2013 election for the 19th Knesset. (Israel Government Press Office)

‘A Party for Everyone and Their Jewish Mother’

Recent immigrants from the US confront the labyrinth of Israeli parties and other political mysteries as they vote in their first national election

With the primary season just warming up for the 2020 US presidential election, politics and voting are literally at full boil in Israel, which is holding a national vote today to determine whether Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu remains on track to be the country’s longest-serving leader. Against this backdrop, many new immigrants from the United States are enthusiastic about making their voices heard.

“This is not like America; every vote counts here,” Moshe Shamah, a new immigrant (oleh) from New Jersey, told The Media Line. “A single vote can be the deciding factor between a party missing the threshold or being part of the majority.”

According to the Jewish Agency, 3,052 immigrants from the US came to Israel in 2018. Nefesh B’Nefesh, a non-governmental agency supporting immigration to Israel, says that some 250,000 Jews from North America have made aliya.

Josie Arbel, director of absorption services at the Jerusalem-based Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI), contends that the North American Jewish community takes politics seriously, and the immigrants it sends to Israel have “a high rate of showing up and voting.”

For some olim, voting provides a sense of comfort in the midst of the many changes they experience when moving to Israel.

“I am a new resident coming to a new country. You have an ideal of what it’s going to be, but a lot of things are very uncertain. There’s a certainty in choosing who you want to vote for and being able to contribute,” Elana Frisch, an immigrant from Coral Springs, Florida, who came in 2017, told The Media Line.

“I am excited that I get to be a part of choosing who I want to be prime minister,” she said.

Prof. Tamar Hermann, director of the Guttmann Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem, told The Media Line that the political leanings of olim “depend upon the level of religiosity rather than their country of origin.” She noted, however, that “the Orthodox coming from the US tend to be significantly more to the right than everyday Israelis.”

An example of this is Julian Parandian, a new immigrant from Austin, Texas.

Parandian underwent a non-Orthodox conversion to Judaism in 2016 and, now leaning toward Orthodoxy, is undergoing an Orthodox conversion. He is basing his voting decision on the issue of the Jewish character of Israel.

“One of the right-wing parties would do it for me. It could have been Likud for a while, but now I’m thinking one of the religious parties, the New Right or the United Right List,” he told The Media Line.

“I cannot be [a] sincere [Orthodox convert], at least at the yeshiva that I go to, and hold completely liberal beliefs,” he explained. “If that were the case, I should have just stayed in the United States and lived in San Francisco or New York. It’s completely antithetical to everything I’m learning, to Torah, to how I should live my life.”

The IDI’s Hermann contends that fewer American liberals are immigrating to Israel because of the negative depiction of the Jewish state in the press and its perception in liberal circles.

“In recent years, people of more liberal views are not keen on making aliya, so Israel is left with centrists and people on the right,” she said.

Shamah, the oleh from New Jersey, describes this as “a Diaspora mentality, which is where political stresses, predominately sourced from non-Jewish movements, pressure Jews into having a non-favorable view of this country.”

AACI’s Arbel disagrees with the assertion that most new North American immigrants vote conservatively.

“American olim are Israelis of all kinds,” she told The Media Line. “They have a huge range of political views.”

For many olim, defense is the main issue. This is why Dana Wruble, another recent immigrant from New Jersey, is voting for Netanyahu’s Likud party despite the fact that she is more liberal on issues like marriage, be it gay or between a Jew and a non-Jew.

“I want those people to also have rights here, but to me, security is first and foremost, and Bibi can definitely protect the country the most,” she told The Media Line, using the Israeli prime minister’s nickname.

For others like Shamah, economic issues take center stage.

“I come from a Mizrahi [Middle Eastern] background, so in this country you have people who have three, four generations… that have been intergenerationally poor, and things have gotten more expensive every year under Netanyahu,” he said.

Shamah is voting for Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White list because he thinks he has the best chance of unseating Netanyahu.

“He is the only way to make a serious change right now. I have to be pragmatic with my vote,” he said.

Lindsay Mairanz, originally from West Hempstead, New York, is also taking electability into account.

“I don’t know if there’s one clear [party] I would vote for,” she told The Media Line. “I’m deciding between Blue and White because they have the best chance of beating Bibi, who I don’t like, or Zehut, because of their policies.”

She was referring to a new party led by a far-right politician who reinvented himself by becoming a libertarian and, perhaps most notably, supporting the legalization of marijuana.

Many olim feel daunted by the complexity of Israel’s voting system. In the US, there are two major parties. In Israel, some 40 are competing for votes in today’s election.

“It’s extremely difficult,” Max Frischman, an oleh from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, told The Media Line. “You have a party for everyone and their Jewish mother.”

Terry Dray, a new immigrant from Hollywood, Florida, agreed.

“I feel a bit insecure because of how different this political system is relative to what I’m used to, especially because there are so many parties and the government becomes organized in a different way,” Dray told The Media Line. “In America, you don’t have coalitions.”

In Israel, no single party has ever been able to form a government on its own, so they must unite to form a coalition that generally requires a minimum of 61 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Parties must receive a minimum 3.25 percent of the vote in order to be represented in Knesset.

In addition, people vote for parties, not particular candidates. Voters go into a room that has cards with various Hebrew letters on them that represent the different parties. People choose a card and place it in an envelope, which they then insert in a blue box.

For some US olim, the prospect of making a difference overrides the dissimilarity of Israel’s voting system.

“The truth is, this is a very easy country to make a change in, so if you see something that upsets you, come here and make a change,” Shamah said.

(Tara Kavaler is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Studies)

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