JERUSALEM, Jan. 28 (JTA) — When I was in the seventh grade, I had a T-shirt that said in brilliant, neo-hippie psychedelic colors, “Vote!” I wore it constantly, even though it would be another six years before I could exercise my democratic right. When my time came, I became a diligent citizen. I voted whenever I could: national, state, city contests. There were tax reforms, bond issues and local referendums. I voted absentee ballot if I was out of the country. But at the end of the day it always felt like something was missing. The issues just didn’t seem all that important. Where was the life and death drama in the question on whether to build a new library? Republicans, Democrats, the choices seemed basically the same. And I know I wasn’t alone: Voter turnout in the United States continues to drop. A person just doesn’t feel his vote makes a difference. Not so in Israel. It may be a cliche, but the issues really do matter here. “Life and death” is not just a figure of speech. Six months ago my cousin, Marla Bennett, was killed in a terrorist bombing at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. If the policies of the government had been different, could her death have been prevented? It’s not an easy question, and there may not be an answer, but the question can’t be ignored. Similarly, when we talk about tax reform in Israel, we’re not debating a couple of percentage points here or a new set of mortgage deductions there. The average employee here hands more than 65 percent of his income to the government, from income tax to Social Security to the mandatory health contribution. And taxes lately are going up here, not down. So when a politician proposes a tax cut of, say, 30 percent, we sit up and listen. Maybe that’s why voter turnout is always so high. The 1996 election, for example, drew a whopping 79.3 percent of voters, Israel’s highest turnout ever. Elections also can be decided by a very slim margin. In that 1996 election, Benjamin Netanyahu bested Shimon Peres by less than a single percentage point. In Israel, it seems, your vote really does make a difference. That was never the case back home — until recently, of course, with the Gore-Bush race in 2000 hanging on a few Miami chads. There’s also the fact that we seem to have elections more often here, though that’s not necessarily a good thing. We’re supposed to vote for a new Knesset every four years, but not a single Israeli government in the last decade has lasted out its term. The result is that we have ping-ponged between the vastly different worldviews of our elected leaders in each of the most recent contests: Rabin-Netanyahu-Barak-Sharon. Still, there is something I do miss from the old country — the simplicity of the voting system. It may have been staid, but the decision for all but the most radical among us was basically between the big two parties. In Israel there are so many parties — 28 ran in Tuesday’s election — it’s like keeping track of a fraternity pledge week at a big university. To make matters even more complicated, you don’t vote for the parties themselves, but for their code letters, which have nothing to do with the party name. So, for example, the far-right National Union is the letter “lamed,” something we usually see on the back of driver-education cars. Is there a hidden message there? The symbol for the anti-clerical party Shinui is Yesh, deceptively close to Yesha, the acronym for the West Bank and Gaza Strip — which Shinui would like us to pull out of. Labor’s code letters spell out the Hebrew word for truth; Yisrael Ba’Aliyah has Yes. So do I vote for the truth, or just say yes? In the end, the feelings of anticipation, the exhilaration that I had way back in the psychedelic “Vote!” days of my youth are still alive as I hit middle age in the Middle East. And because this is Israel, a country I consciously chose to move to, not just the place where I was born, my pride and patriotism have swelled in ways I never experienced before and never expected. Once upon a time, I believed your first time is always the most memorable, but now I know it’s all about love. So when I walked into that polling booth on Tuesday, and found myself standing in a long line of voters waiting to cast their ballots, I knew that, for better or worse, Israel is a real democracy — and my vote will have a profound effect on the real lives and deaths of our friends, families and neighbors.
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