Election Day in Jerusalem: Deciding to vote, boycott or rebel

Israel/Palestine
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zion square
Israeli shoppers in Zion Square enjoying a day off of work on Israel’s Election Day. (Photo: Allison Deger/Mondoweiss)

Tuesday’s election tumble for Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Yisrael Beitenu bloc has been regarded as a last ditch effort by the forces of Israeli secularism to halt the country’s dive into religious orthodoxy. The second place winner Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, won a surprise 14% of the overall vote, which was credited to his broad appeal—similar to an all-American football star. The former journalist campaigned on pulling the plug on heavy subsidies to religious sects, while staying tough on demographics.

But secularism does not have much sway in Jerusalem, the heart and soul of the Haredim political movement that yearns to erase the distinction between Torah and the state. On election day I met what is considered the Left in the city—from Meretz voters, to boycott activists, to Palestinians holding East Jerusalem IDs, who are not permitted to cast ballots in national elections. For all of them secularism was secondary; the most salient issue from their perspectives was settlement expansion and the rights of Palestinians.

“What do you think will happen if Netanyahu wins?” I asked a 53-year-old man who owns a store off of Zion Square in Jerusalem. “He’s going to eat a lot of shit,” said the shopkeeper who wished to not be identified by name. “People will know who I am.” Quickly he identified himself as Meretz voter. The man considered himself one of a few liberals in a sea of West Jerusalem’s religious. Why Meretz? The shop-owner said because “what state has 400,000 people living over the border.”

 Election Day was unseasonably warm. Combined with pop music blaring in Zion Square (including “Gangnam Style”), the day had the feeling of a holiday rather than a battle for the country’s future. In fact Election Day is a work holiday for most Israelis. But kilometers away in East Jerusalem the mood was hardly jovial.

I started the day at Damascus Gate where Palestinians had announced a protest against the elections. One indication of the conflicted opinions over voter participation was the fact the demonstration never happened. Only one Palestinian showed up and the Israelis that came decided after waiting an hour to leave the Old City and head to Sheikh Jarrah to the home of a family about five weeks away from an eviction.

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Shamasneh and Derbarabdiker on Election Day, Sheikh Jarrah.

Mahmoud Shamasneh and his family have lived in their house since 1964 as renters from the state, yet quietly at some point the house was sold to settler leader Aryeh King. King scours East Jerusalem for properties once inhabited by Jews and uses unscrupulous methods force Palestinian families out. The unfairness intrinsic to the system is what kept some election boycotters from the polls. Elifelet Derbarabdiker, 29, one of the Israelis who went to Sheikh Jarrah on Election Day said, “This is my vote. To be here with this person [Shamasneh].” She continued, “What’s democratic about taking a man’s right and dignity. I don’t want to live in a country that takes people’s property.” For Derbarabdiker, even the most “left” parties are incapable of challenging fundamental issues such as why someone like King has more political rights than Shamasneh. She pointed out that Shamasneh’s East Jerusalem ID bars him from voting for the government that on March 1st will force him and nine family members out of the only home they have ever known.

To some voting is viewed a normalization of the lack of rights for non-Jews. Since the second Intifada, many Palestinian citizens of Israel have boycotted the elections. This year close to 50% voted as compared to the national rate of 67%. Hanin Zoabi, Balad, exceeded the 2% threshold needed to maintain her seat. Haaretz even plugged the member of Knesset by printing an editorial in Arabic calling on Palestinian citizens of Israel to go and vote. But East Jerusalem Palestinian ID holders do not have a voice in the elections. Although they live within what Israel considers part of the Jewish state, as a group they are not allowed to participate.

Still some voted.

This year for the first time Israelis in large numbers gave their right to vote to a Palestinian that is not eligable. The Real Democracy campaign matched around 2,000 Israelis with Palestinians. The Palestinians told the Israelis the candidate they wanted and the Israelis voted as their proxy.  After leaving the polls, +972 Magazine‘s Mairav Zonszein wrote about why she “let a Palestinian woman from East Jerusalem decide my vote.” Here’s her take:

My voting experience today, however, wasn’t a private matter. And it wasn’t an enjoyable or empowering one either, because I decided to give up my right and privilege to vote in an act of protest, frustration and guilt. I let Riman Barakat, a Palestinian woman from East Jerusalem, decide who I should vote for. And she chose Balad, an Arab nationalist party, a party I would not have voted for and have no specific affinity to.

Edo Konrad, also from +972 Magazine, decided to vote–for himself and did not participate with his colleague in the Real Democracy campaign. Konrad is a editor by trade, but to his friends he is known for his Facebook statuses. His posts in the weeks leading up to the elections are snapshots into the aggravation of voting in the absence of a meaningful left:

omg you hate bibi too? omg you’re so progressiiiiiive

omg you went on birthright but then stayed another week to volunteer in an arab village? omg you’re so liberaaaal

The day after Election Day I followed up with Konrad. “I flipped a coin,” he said describing his process of elimination, “between Balad and Hadash. Ended up the latter.”

“It matters,” he continued,” inasmuch as I believe in some of the MKs and their ability to fight against the most fascist tendencies in the Knesset. But they will forever remain in the opposition.” Thoughtfully Konrad concluded, “I believe in supporting the non-Zionist parties.”

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