On Voting Across the Sea

Since Haim quoted me on the subject of voting in America – and since his father disagreed with me – I’ll explain how my view developed.

In my Jewish home, growing up, I learned that voting was a primary mitzvah, the mark of a responsible human being. In 1980, the first US election after I came to Israel, I tried voting. I wasn’t a citizen here yet. My absentee ballot arrived from California two days before the election, with a punchcard and a little curlycue of a wire to punch the chads out. Mail was taking about two weeks to get from Jerusalem to Los Angeles in those days. There was no way I could get the ballot back in time. For a while, I used the curlycue to clean my garlic press.

After that I didn’t try again for years. Experience showed that I probably wouldn’t succeed. Besides, like Haim, I felt that my life was here. I voted and protested here and wrote about Israeli politics, and called my wife every two hours when I had reserve duty in the ninth month of her pregnancy. In the ancient days of the 1980s and early 90s, I got my news of America from the foreign page of Ha’aretz, in Hebrew, in small doses. Why should I vote over there?

In 2004, I changed my mind. In the Internet era, with a journalist’s appetite for news, I knew more about what was happening in US politics than most Americans did. In 2000, a few hundred votes had made the difference between a qualified president and one who was making matters even worse in the Middle East than back in America. This time, I registered online, got a ballot early, and sent it back by three-day express mail, and damn the expense.

Is it right for me to do so? Is it fair, as Abu Haim asks?

From the point of view of the American polity, I’m an ex-pat. The rules of American elections allow for absentee ballots. For those who’ve asked, we ex-pats are registered in our last place of residence in the U.S. We’re also required to file tax returns – and to pay American taxes. True, we get certain tax breaks, but I assure you, our loopholes are nothing compared to those of the average hedge fund manager, and they’re allowed to vote. I have to pay social security tax on the self-employed part of my income, though the current administration’s economic policies daily reduce the forecast of what I’ll get in return. If we need any help sorting this, there are companies who specialize in taxes for expats. As I think I learned in third grade: No taxation without representation.

Social security is a huge thing in American lives, it helps out during retirement age, it can provide financial relief to those who are in serious need and even spouses of divorce can access it. Social Security and divorce are not mentioned a lot in relation to social security payments but it is an avenue. It can be hard to follow all the rules and regulations, like my tax I have to pay (as it’ll always change), people can be confused and need extra help. Being an ex-pat can be difficult as you don’t know where you fit in with American laws and regulations, from Social Security to voting in the upcoming elections, there are different rules for us to follow and they are changing constantly.

The rules of American elections are admittedly bizarre. A few hundred votes in Florida were worth more than thousands elsewhere. Every state has different rules on disqualifying ex-cons, rules that often have racist consequences. In some states but not others, an absentee ballot is valid even if the voter mailed it in and then died before election day. (LBJ would be blissed to know that there are legal ways for the dead to vote.) These are strange laws, but they list me and other permanent expats as qualified voters. Both major political parties have active branches for expats. The voting rules and tax policies of my native country both inform me that I am considered part of the polity.

And, yes, US elections have a deep impact on my life here. It’s true that in the 21st century, every country effects every other. But the relative weight of the impact is not equal. The United States is the Empire. It is the blind elephant in the china shop of the world. Its effect is immense, its wars are fought far from its shores, and most of its citizens, safe behind the moats of the Pacific and Atlantic while their newspapers shed foreign coverage , have no clue what their government is smashing in its stampede. If we expats have been permitted to bring some expert knowledge to the electoral process, we should do so. Especially when we have a chance of getting the ballot on time.

4 thoughts on “On Voting Across the Sea”

  1. There’s a difference between an expat and a citizen of another country. I presume you’ve become a citizen of Israel, so you’re no longer an expat. I would say this is dual-loyalty, even if we might agree on a number of issues.

  2. However you decide concerning your vote, a far more powerful effect is in what you both write, both on this blog and generally. The sad fact is that, as you mentioned, so many Americans vote without knowing much about what they are voting for, and this is probably to be expected in a huge democracy.

    Israel was unknown to me until I saw the movie Exodus. Then Israelis became the good guys and I remember cheering for Israel in high school during the ’67 war.

    The older I became the more I wondered about the endless strife. Why were the bad guys, the Palestinians, so crazy? How could they do such apparently mindless things to a people who had brought such progress to a backward area? Nothing in the news in the United States ever intimated that there might be another side to the story. I knew plenty of Jews, my own sister converted to Judaism, but I knew not a single Palestinian and nothing about Islam.

    It was at my sister’s home that I spotted Conor Cruise O’Brien’s book, The Siege and began to read. Suddenly I became aware that there was far far more to the history of Israel than that of a band of rugged heroes who knew how to stand up for themselves and proudly taught a bunch of swarthy rogues a lesson.

    I became fascinated with the history. So the Palestinians were not devils incarnate. They had a story too. Book after book I have read on Israel and the Middle East and I’ve taken undergrad courses on such things as the history of the Ottoman Empire. I am now awed and ashamed at the profound ignorance in which I dwelled for so long. Yet as I query my fellow citizens I realize that ignorance of the Middle East is widespread, it is the rule. In fact, I have had people say to me, “Oh, it’s too complicated, I don’t want to hear about it” or “They are all insane over there, I just wish both sides would blow each other up and be done with it.” I want to shake them and say “But your country is contributing in a major way to what happens over there – WAKE UP!”

    Only within the past few years has another voice been heard in the States, a voice that questions the knee-jerk support for Israel’s right wing. I am astounded at the way Israel has essentially thumbed its nose at U.S. policy that directly opposed the settlements…and with only a few hesitations has prevailed and continues to do so!

    Only recently have I discovered such groups as B’Tselem whose excellent publications I get regularly. Only recently have I come to understand how the bitterness of the Palestinians has come to be and what a benighted people they are, even through actions of their own. They need a land of their own!

    So to say that you will vote because you are informed is of small account in relation to the work you can do to inform those who known nothing as I did. Things are changing in the United States and you are helping to change them, for the good of both the U.S. and Israel.

  3. Gershom, like Haim, makes a persuasive case for U.S.
    expatriate voting. Certainly law and equity are on his side. But on another level, his earlier hesitation to vote also has a great deal to be said in favor of it. No point in rehashing those arguments, so I’ll simply say that I’m delighted Gershom is going to vote again becazuse, from what I read of him, he votes my way. I’m scared stiff that the impending U.S. elections might yet go the other way, and perhaps by the tiniest of margins, so please, Gershom, pay again all the postage that’s required!

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