Israel's Ballot Box Is a Melting Pot
My plane landed at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport just a few hours ago. When I had realized earlier in the week that I would be doing a lot of flying for a meager 28 hours in the U.S., I wondered whether it really made sense to return home just to vote. (Absentee ballots are not an option for most Israelis.) But I wasn’t alone, it turned out; the plane was full of people coming home for the same reason.
Israel is a country where the very existence of a democracy still feels like a miracle; many of us refuse to take it for granted.
The vast majority of country's immigrants came from societies with no democratic tradition. When Israel declared independence, North African Arab states summarily evicted almost all their Jewish citizens, and some 700,000 of them arrived on Israel’s shores. The Jewish state had no resources for absorbing a population of that size, but it took them in nonetheless. Unlike Jordan and Syria, which have never given Palestinian refugees a chance to become citizens, Israel gave all those Jewish refugees citizenship and taught them how to vote.
In my neighborhood, different ethnic groups all vote in the same elementary school. As I stood in line, there were North African Jews waiting who were older than the state itself. It took just a brief look in their eyes to see that though we might vote too often here, they understand that waiting in that line is a rare privilege in this region.
A million Russians came to Israel a few decades ago when the Soviet Union first opened its gates and then collapsed on itself. They, too, came with no experience of a genuine democracy. Under Natan Sharansky, they formed their own political party, but abandoned it a few years later when they realized they no longer needed it. They’d become Israelis, and today, they stood in line, chatting in Russian, just as my wife and I spoke in English and another recently arrived couple conversed in French.
It’s extraordinary, this smoothly functioning democracy, but not really surprising. The Zionist Congresses, beginning in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland, were all democratic. From the Second Zionist Congress, in 1898, women could vote and be elected -- long before any other major European parliament gave women that opportunity. The Yishuv, the pre-state community in Palestine, created democratic institutions, all of which seamlessly morphed into Israel’s democratic government. For all its rough and tumble rhetoric, the democratic impulse in Zionism has never missed a beat. Imagine our region if even one of our neighbors had done the same thing.
When my turn came, I took a ballot from one of the many piles arrayed for me to choose from. With a sense of reverence, I placed it in an envelope, and dropped it in the blue ballot box. Obviously, I hoped that the party I had voted for would win. But as I looked at the multicolored and multilingual line of people still waiting for their turn, it struck me that all of us Israelis, given what we’ve built here against all the odds, have already won.
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