Immigrants Find Voting in Israel Can Be Exciting but Overwhelming

For more than a week before Election Day, Tatyana Kravitz felt a flutter of anticipation in her stomach.

“I’ve never voted in a democratic election before, and I’m excited,” she enthused Tuesday at a polling station in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood.

“Of course, there were a lot of parties to choose from, and it was hard to decide which one to vote for,” she added.

Kravitz, like many other new immigrants, found that having the right to vote in Israel can be both exhilarating and overwhelming.

As one new immigrant from Ethiopia put it recently: “The more you learn about the different parties, the more confusing it gets.”

Since 1989, when Soviet Jews began to immigrate to Israel en masse, the political parties have viewed them as an important voting bloc. And while the number of Ethiopian immigrants of voting age is less than 20,000, they, too, have long been considered an untapped source of votes.

During the election campaign that wound up Monday, most of the major parties and some of the smaller ones made a concerted effort to woo the immigrants. Many of the nightly political commercials featured translations in Russian and Amharic, as did a slew of brochures, stickers, kites, beach umbrellas and T-shirts.

In the ordinarily pristine neighborhood of Gilo, where thousands of new immigrants live in rented apartments or absorption centers, many of these campaign leaflets littered the streets as people made their way to the voting stations.

DISCONTENT OVER LACK OF JOBS

To the background noise of the Likud’s campaign song, Tatyana Cherney, an unemployed engineer who immigrated a year ago, stood outside a local school and explained why she had just voted for a right-wing party.

“First, I distrust left-wing politics. I lived under a communist government, a left-wing government, and the system didn’t work. I think we need something more oriented to the right — the Likud and those parties.

“For me and my friends, who are also unemployed, the main problem is the lack of jobs,” she said.

“Then there is the issue of the territories,” she continued. “I have friends who live in the West Bank, and for them the land is like their blood. I visited them and now see why the territories are so important to many Israelis.”

Galina Popovsky, a computer programmer with a good job, also decided to vote right-of-center, “because I am from a socialist country, and we know how that story turned out.”

In Israel for more than two years, she also based her vote on the issue of jobs and the economy. “Although I am working, my husband, a physician, is not. For us, a healthy economy is very important,” she said.

Abraham Adiso, on the other hand, voted “in the center. I emigrated from Ethiopia just one year ago, and I still don’t understand a lot about what goes on here. Before I choose to vote right or left, I need to see more, learn more about the country,” he said.

Billy Weisel, who moved to Israel from Illinois eight years ago, voted left-of-center, although he describes himself as “pretty centrist.”

In Israel long enough to know Hebrew and understand the Israeli political system, Weisel said he was able to concentrate on the campaign’s content — or lack of content.

“The fact is, I was very disappointed with the campaign’s lack of attention to issues,” he said. “By coming out to vote today, I hope that the voters sent a clear message to the major parties: that they have lost the public’s confidence because the political system is corrupt.”

In a more upbeat tone, he added, “Despite our politicians, it’s important to remember that having democratic elections here shouldn’t be belittled, given the amount of external pressure Israelis live under.”

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