A personal account: (Not) voting in an age of cynicism

One simple answer to the question of why elections matter is that I feel part of something when I vote in Israel. Being away for four months, living deep inside the world of other peoples’ conflicts, provided a few more answers.

Israelis voting in the 2013 Knesset elections (photo: Yotam Ronen / Activestills)
Israelis voting in the 2013 Knesset elections (photo: Yotam Ronen / Activestills)

For the first time since moving to Israel 15 years ago, I was not in the county on election day yesterday. Since Israel has no absentee voting for regular citizens, I was not able to participate.

Given the wild demonization of the Left over the last few years, some people probably wonder why I even care. My colleagues at +972 Magazine and I regularly face numerous accusations, from being Israel-haters and extremists, to traitors.

Critics on the other side, and some Palestinians, question the legitimacy of elections in Israel in general. The elections yesterday not only didn’t end the occupation, a policy that destroys Israeli democracy, but even if a center-right government emerges it is likely to perpetuate the current policy. In that view, participating in these elections as an exercise in democracy is an act of auto-hypnosis, complicity in a hypocritical sham in order to languish in our privilege.

But I do care. When I received my Israeli identity card in 1997, I took it out for coffee on the busy thoroughfare of Ibn Gabirol Street, named after the 11th century poet whose literature has been my father’s lifelong subject of study. I put it on the table, and said to my new ID card (silently, so I wouldn’t be taken for mad): “Now we’re in it for good, you and I. I hope we make each other into something better than we would be alone.”

It was young, it was romantic, it was probably even hubris. But one simple answer to the question of why elections matter is that I feel part of something when I vote in Israel.

Being away for four months, living deep inside the world of other peoples’ conflicts, provided a few more answers.

Cyprus, like Israel, has struggled with a tragic conflict for 50 years. Like Israel, the two sides can hardly even agree on the history of the conflict. For most Greek Cypriots, 1974 is the starting point; for Turkish Cypriots, the war began over a decade earlier, in 1963. Many cannot accept the history and suffering of the other, because it would feel like neglecting or even negating their own community’s trauma.

Yet some have faced their history, acknowledging their community’s responsibility for the pain and trauma their side has caused. These are often the same people who over the years have sought bi-communal contact, reconciliation, and who generated ideas for compromises for resolution. These activists faced their own side’s darkest deeds without negating their own suffering; they simply believed at the deepest level that resolution would provide the best possible lives for their people.

Governments on both sides of the divided island sought to repress such activities, at points discouraging and hindering people from knowing and listening to one another. Left-wing activists have absorbed ridicule and had professional opportunities blocked.

But these activists play a vibrant role in democratic life on each side. They ensured a healthy opposition that waited for its moment. The democratic nature of those societies allowed for peaceful changes of government, and eventually produced leaders on both sides who came closer than any others to reaching peace.

Despite that, resolution remains horribly elusive in both of our torn communities. But the competition of parties and candidates, and the pull of caring about societies brings more people and ideas into politics; it inspires citizens to become politicians, activists, journalists, students or voters. Israel now has some brand new parties and nearly half the Knesset members (42 percent) are new. Roughly 250,000 Israelis voted for tiny parties that will not be represented; they join the electorate’s demand for better answers and better lives through change of policy. It is true that no party competing in Israel yesterday proposed a magic formula for ending the conflict. But among all those new faces surely someone can come up with new ideas for breaking the stale cycle of dehumanization.

Two further insights about why even us tough critics must care about elections arose from conversations with unlikely interlocutors in my months away. In an honest conversation, a Palestinian asked me genuinely if it wouldn’t be easier for all the Jews to just leave. I explained that no, Jews cannot go away because we too are home. I wanted to communicate that embracing the rights of Israelis to be in our homes must not entail a denial of Palestinian rights, that our humanity depends on justice for one another. But my reply, I realized, was equally resonant for me: I affirmed that I can think as critically as the situation demands, without losing my identity.

Later, a well-meaning Iranian colleague, having learned some of my interests, sent me a report about Israeli human rights violations. It was written by my friends and colleagues in Israeli human rights groups. Much of my professional life is devoted to supporting the work of those groups. Yet I felt a twinge of discomfort at receiving this from an Iranian and quickly realized why: it is always easier to criticize someone else. The hard work is looking inside ourselves. It is not fun, it is not popular, it looks negative and angry and may even shame us. But it enables us to speak freely, expose our flaws and in so doing, I pray, fix them. I wish this for Iranians and Palestinians too; in the meantime, I criticize Israel not despite, but because I belong here.

If I had been home yesterday, I would have voted even though no party can magically solve the conflict or Israel’s social ills. I would have voted not despite Israel’s partial freedom but because of it: to demand that Israel maintain what democracy it has, and to save what is being lost.