To vote or not to vote? Grappling with the question

Last month’s Gaza war-cum-onslaught now seems like a distant memory, a forgotten speck of death and destruction in a news cycle that is now dominated by the January 22 elections and all the recent political musical chairs that make our political system look like a chicken running around without a head. I am now supposed to get ready for what I have always been taught is my most prized privilege and duty as a citizen: to go to the ballot and make my voice heard.

But when you’ve lost faith in your state – its government, military, courts and mainstream media –  to the point that you either laugh at the absurdity or cry at the dreadfulness, voting doesn’t seem like a privilege or a duty, but rather more like a farce. When you don’t believe, not only in the elected government representatives, but in the fundamental working assumptions that guide the system you are expected to participate in, the question that you are prompted to ask yourself is not “who should I vote for? but rather, or at least firstly, “what does it mean to vote?

I have been grappling with this question recently, feeling very helpless and frustrated. I know that common sense says, voting is the thing to do to try and effect change – but  not many things seem to make sense in Israeli reality these days. I posted a status on my Facebook page a few days ago in which I expressed that I may have reached the point in which I will boycott the elections. “How can I participate in a process that is being so obviously mocked and undermined? Won’t my vote only give the regime the ability to say – ‘See? we are a vibrant democracy!’ and let it continue trampling all over everyone it pleases under the guise of normalcy?” I wrote.

I received a bunch of different comments, from those saying outright that not voting is just giving up, waiving your right to affect change and letting the fascists win. Others encouraged me, saying that boycotting is the right thing to do, since there is no real democracy in Israel, considering the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and East Jerusalem cannot vote in national elections and yet are directly affected by their outcome.

One friend, an active member of the Da’am Workers Party (which has never made the 2 percent threshold to get a seat in the Knesset) argued in favor of voting:

Unlike in South African apartheid, a party in Israel can run in the elections and be against the current situation. This means there is a genuine possibility for real change through the parliamentary system in Israel. As long as this is the case, as long as the elections are not rigged, I believe we must vote (assuming there is indeed a party that represents our views).

Another friend, who is an activist from West Jerusalem and is in favor of boycotting the elections, wrote in response:

I vote by building local capacity to voice demands that aren’t otherwise heard, and by screaming INJUSTICE! In my case, I live in a town where if you are not jewish, you don’t even GET to vote in a national election. I am not going to kid myself into thinking I can symbolically vote on their behalf. The system is rigged. It is not democratic. If this isn’t a good enough reason to boycott a so called political process, I don’t know what is.

These are both strong arguments. For me, by definition, Israel’s de facto control over the occupied Palestinian population that has no right to vote in national elections disqualifies it from the most basic definition of an electoral democracy. As Ahmed Tibi once wryly pointed out: Israel is a Jewish and democratic state: democratic for Jews and Jewish for Arabs. In this sense, going to vote means in principle that I am participating in a structure that I oppose, that systematically discriminates against a huge population, and that continues to believe, on a holistic level, that the way to preserve Jewish identity is through ethnic-religious nationalism, territorialism and military domination.

But sure, no democracy is perfect. And, practically speaking, a non-vote is one less vote for a party that does offer an agenda I agree with, or at least values I identify with, and thus counts as one more vote for the strongest parties – who fail to offer alternatives to how Israel operates and where it is headed. Since the face of the country in fact does represent the democratic will of the majority of Jewish people who live here, why not vote for one of the few parties whose platform includes an end to the occupation, to segregation and to settlements, and who recognizes the need to provide all people living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean with equal rights – in the hopes that it can eventually garner enough votes to change something?

That is certainly an option I am considering. Even though most Israelis won’t vote for them (or have never even heard of them) and so these parties won’t have substantial power. But, as has been argued here recently, there are no quick fixes, and building up a tiny party whose agenda is to change the system from the core can be effective over time. On the other hand, I feel action is necessary now, yesterday, and I can’t protest by not paying my taxes, so maybe the way to protest is with my vote.

And let’s say one of these smaller parties (Hadash, Balad, Da’am Workers Party) did win a respectable number of seats in the Knesset, wouldn’t its presence just function as a pleasant facade and moral compass for Israel’s continued policies, giving people the chance to gloat: “See, we are a healthy democratic society?” I can’t tell you how many times someone has argued with me that Israel is a wonderfully just and admirable democracy because it “allows” Arab members of Knesset.

Of course that doesn’t mean I think these parties shouldn’t exist – but imagine a situation (very hard to imagine) in which all citizens eligible to vote in Israel – Jewish, Palestinian – who opposed the fundamentals of how this country operates, boycotted not only the elections, but the political system on a whole, just opted out – not in silence but as an organized public statement of protest that has the potential for over a million backers. Wouldn’t the legitimacy of the regime be in serious doubt?

That is obviously not a realistic vision, but more of a cognitive exercise, and maybe food for thought for a future campaign. I am certainly on the fence about whether to vote – but the most important thing for me right now is to grapple with the question, discuss it and  prompt others to do so. (*Regarding the blank or “white” ballot, it is not counted separately in Israel. The authorities count all the votes that have been disqualified in one big lump, which include not only blank ballots but erroneous ones, like two slips in one ballot – so a blank ballot is not actually counted as a protest vote and that is why I am not considering it).

For me, the choice not to take part in Israel’s electoral process is legitimate and important to consider. Like a friend recently said to me, it is similar to the question of whether to serve in the IDF, since it is nearly impossible to participate in this body without being a tool in a system you don’t believe in, that forces you to compromise your beliefs. But it is of course more complicated than that.

So, while I may feel confident in principle, the real tough question is, pragmatically speaking, what is the move that will have the most impact on the situation towards my vision for this society?