A new voter ventures forth in Israel
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A new voter ventures forth in Israel

Tuesday, January 22, was election day in Israel. It was a day like no other.

Not only did you have the day off from work for voting, after which you could go to the beach, the mall, or a barbecue, but you got paid too. Ah, and on top of that, the temperature was 80 degrees. Not bad for a winter day.

For me, voting in Israel for the first time, as well as following the electoral process, was quite an education. The voting place was near my house and most of the volunteers, and all the voters, spoke English; Bet Shemesh has a large Anglo community. Once I was inside the voting place – a school – my address and my name were checked against a huge address book, because I had lost my “notice to voters” postcard. Then came my first encounter with the Hebrew Alphabet Soup that decides the fate of each party.

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A Shas banner with the picture of its spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is posted in a poor neighborhood of Bet Shemesh. Daniel Santacruz

The Alphabet Soup are cards stacked in piles in a blue tray, with the initials of each of the 32 parties participating in the election, neatly arranged inside 32 boxes. I didn’t try to find logic in the initials or what they stood for. Labor’s letters, for example, spelled out Emet (Truth), which is completely unrelated to Mifleget HaAvoda HaYisraeli, its official name. Or Likud, which was identified with a mem, a chet, and a lamed, a far cry from its name, HaLikud Ysrael Beiteinu. Needless to say, confusing.

After finding my party, the three letters of which I had memorized, I enclosed my card in a blue envelope, took it to a blue box located in front of the officials who were checking names, and pushed it through a hole. The color of the box matched the envelope, which matched the tray, which matched the Israeli flag.

For a country that prides itself on technological innovations, using cardboard boxes to cast the votes instead of electronic voting machines, was disappointing.

The campaign process was short by American standards, and voters didn’t have to suffer through primaries and party conventions with predictable results. The streets of Israeli cities and towns were full of posters, a colorful assortment of banners and slogans.

You may say that 32 parties for a country the size of New Jersey is a lot, but that shows the vibrancy of Israeli democracy. Even little-known parties, like the Pirate Party and Balad, whose founder is a fugitive from Israeli justice who lives in Qatar, have the chance to sit in the Knesset.

You know it’s a healthy democracy when the government installs 194 polling stations at hospitals. Or it gives inmates freedom to choose at 57 polling stations at prisons.

Candidates, over all, behaved nicely to each other during the campaign, and some rabbis didn’t threaten to excommunicate members of rival parties as they had in earlier elections. There was no fire and brimstone coming from some sectors, and no candidates aired their dirty laundry in public.

Here’s a summary of what made the elections memorable:

The story that wasn’t: HaRav Zalman Leib Teitlebaum of Satmar flew from New York to Israel to attend his granddaughter’s wedding two days before the elections, but according to some reports, also to pay $100 cash to those who abstained from voting. But the rebbe, who is rabidly anti-Zionist, didn’t hand out any money in the end. Ironically, he was escorted by the police during his stay in the country.

Embarrassment award: Went to Shas for a TV ad making fun of conversions and non-Jews, featuring a bride with a thick Russian accent who receives her conversion certificate by fax right under the chuppah. (How do you say tacky in Hebrew?) The party pulled the ad at the request of the Supreme Court, but not without alienating many voters first.

Winners and losers: Fifty members of the 19th Knesset are newcomers, 26 are women, and 38 are religious. There could be more women if Shas and United Torah Judaism allowed them to run. Only one American candidate, Rabbi Dov Lipman of Bet Shemesh, formerly of Baltimore, was elected. The other three Americans lost: New Brunswick-born Alon Tal of the Tzipi Livni Party; Atlanta-born Jeremy Gimpel of Bayit Yehudi; and Boston native Baruch Marzel of Strong Israel.

Provocation: In the religious neighborhood of Bayit VeGan in Jerusalem, someone complained to the Central Elections Committee that a female worker at one of the polling places was dressed provocatively.

What a country.

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A Shas banner with the picture of its spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is posted in a poor neighborhood of Bet Shemesh. Daniel Santacruz
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