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Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Expat Election Ethics 101

Today is Election Day back in the ‘alta heim’ (old country).

Zahava and I mailed off our official absentee ballots weeks ago... and, no, we didn’t discuss our voting preference before we filled out the ballots. It was actually quite funny seeing us sitting across from each other at the kitchen table, nonchalantly shielding our ballots from one another like school kids during an exam.

To date we still have not discussed our choices, but I have a sneaking suspicion that we may have cancelled each other out. This may be just as well because I have been feeling the sting of a real ethical dilemma for quite some time now.

Being an American citizen abroad, it is a wonderful thing to be afforded the ability to cast a vote. However, because we now permanently make our home abroad, there are some very real ethical issues that can’t be ignored. The most prominent one being whether to vote based on what is best for Israel or what is best for the U.S.

Allison discussed this over in her Unsealed Room awhile back, but at the time I wasn’t fully engaged in the issue.

When I was living in the U.S. I used to scoff at the frequent accusations of dual loyalty on the part of the Jewish community. But the more I think about it, the defining issue for many Jewish voters has become less, ‘Is it good for the Jews?’ (which is a reasonable criterion), and more ‘Is it good for Israel?’ (which begins to smell like conflict of interest). In my mind, this becomes ethically problematic; especially when one candidate, who is a complete enigma in terms of his foreign policy, is clearly better qualified to deal with domestic issues (the economy, unemployment, social justice, poverty, education, etc.). And the other, while his foreign policies have been, um, somewhat short sighted and ill advised, seems to be a better potential friend to Israel.

Keep in mind, that nowhere on the ballot for U.S. elections does it ask your motivation for voting one way or another. Unlike the Republican Party, there are no loyalty oaths or any such nonsense on U.S. Ballots. In fact, if one’s sole aim was to bring down the U.S. Government, and he/she thought a vote for a particular candidate might bring about that result… there is no law against doing so. However, I doubt this is what the framers of the constitution had in mind.

For may sake, I was, and to a certain extent still am, torn between ignoring the potential benefit or harm the results of the election will have on either the U.S. or Israel.

Israel has eliminated this dilemma by not allowing absentee ballots in its elections. I don’t know if it was intentional, but this policy echoes a much earlier decision: When the Jews were allowed to return to Israel after the Babylonian exile (6th century before the common era), only a small proportion of them actually did so (sound familiar???). Life in Babylonia (which is the area of modern day Iraq) was quite comfortable for the Jews. There was a vibrant educational and business infrastructure, and the various Jewish communities were extremely well off.

Ezra, the leader of the Jews who returned to Israel, made a decision not to allow the Jews of Babylonia to contribute to the rebuilding of the Temple or in any way be involved in decisions that would impact those who had returned. This decision to exclude the input and significant wealth of Jews living abroad resulted in extreme poverty and hardship (including a ramshackle wooden Temple in Jerusalem), but ensured that people from outside of Israel would not be able to unduly influence decisions regarding how life would be lived here.

Looking at U.S. elections from an Israeli vantage point, I’m pretty sure Ezra was onto something. Why should I be able to influence matters of state in the U.S. when at best I will not be impacted by the results, and at worst my vote will have been cast in order to benefit a foreign country… and at the possible expense of the U.S.?

I won’t tell you how I voted (why should I tell you when I haven’t told my wife?), but I will have some serious thinking to do before I participate in future U.S. elections.


Posted by David Bogner on November 2, 2004 | Permalink


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I still firmly hold that if I am required by law to file a U.S. tax return that I am still fully entitled to cast my vote in Federal elections – REGARDLESS of my loyalties. And with regards to my dual citizenship, dual responsibilities and dual loyalties, I hardly think that my position on any given issue is any less affected than someone residing with in the US borders whose motivating issues fall under the following agendas/lobbies: right-to-life, school vouchers, supreme court decisions, and gun control (and the like)....

I think, first and foremost, based on the famous tea party in Boston Harbor, that what the founding fathers DID have in mind was representation in exchange for taxation....

Israel does not allow absentee ballots, it is true. However, the founding fathers did not seek to succeed from a government which taxed it's citizens without granting them due process in electing its leaders – the U.S. did. Also, though democratic in nature, Israel's government has strong socialist tendencies and is based on a parlimentary form of government.

The example of Ezra is not parallel to today's issue. Ezra denied participation to Jews who refused to return to Israel for a multitude of reasons. I suspect a primary reason was that history to that point in time supported the notion that Israel, without Jews living within its borders, would not and could not remain sovreign to Jews. I think that Ezra's motivation in denying participation was not to punish those still living in Babylonia, but rather to encourage them to return to Eretz Yisrael.

Expat Americans who deny themselves the right to participation in the American electoral process based on the idea that they no longer have the right to influence the government simply because they no longer reside within her borders need to consider the following:

1) Who is to say that the American militia sub-cultures residing within U.S. borders have any more loyalty to the ideology the country was founded upon? In fact, the "all men are created equal" clause in the Bill of Rights is largely disputed among many of these groups who refer to certain ethnic communities as "mud-people, " etc....

2) By retaining your U.S. citizenship (instead of renouncing it) are you still responsible to the U.S government via: a) registration for the draft – yes, I know it hasn't been activated in many years, but that isn't to say that it wouldn't be at some point in the future; b) filing U.S. taxes; and c) paying into Social Security. If the answer to any of the above questions is YES, don't you then have an ethical responsibility to be represented in the manner in which those programs continue and are implemented?

Basically, IMHO, it is a civic obligation to participate in Federal Elections if you intend to retain your citizenship. That is not to suggest that we aren't absolved of honestly examining the motiviation behind our choices – but, hopefully, that is something that each and every voter does when they exercise their right to vote. And if you are rolling your eyes and saying, "yeah, right! I'm so SURE!" than you understand why I view it as an obligation and not simply a right – only when all the voices are heard can true democracy be expressed.

When someone stays home on election day they leave a hole in the spectrum.

Posted by: zahava | Nov 2, 2004 10:50:39 AM

Clearly the Divine Mrs. 'B' needs a blog of her own (or at least a soap box)! Anyone getting the idea why she and I don't discuss politics??? :~>

Posted by: David | Nov 2, 2004 12:22:06 PM

My apologies, honey! =:->

My intention was not for my comment to be construed as a rant – I simply think that to point a finger at expat Americans and question their voting motives is disingenuous. I think that EVERY person who votes does so to protect their personal interests and those of their families, which is as it should be. Why single out the motives of expat Americans alone?

Posted by: zahava | Nov 2, 2004 2:21:16 PM

Good point Zahava. Its absolutly why we vote.
Everyone should vote. Here, there and everywhere.
(Even I have a motive ;o)

Posted by: lisa | Nov 2, 2004 3:16:00 PM

First of all, Mrs. B., you should know by now not to apologize. He needs his ass kicked every now and again, and you are located more conveniently for just such a purpose.
Second, while I am not sure the phrase "no taxation without representation" represents an actual plitical or legal construct or was the prime reason for American Independence (cf. Charles Beard et al), your general point is well taken. I would not see it as quite so neat a transaction, but the idea that just because your are not within America's borders, you still bear some kind of obligation to her, and thus have the duty to help choose her leaders. (Forgive the archaic locution).
As far as one issue voters, I can assure you that in my humble suburban hell, a large portion of residents will be voting for the incumbent, with the alternative reasons given that he is "strong on terror" or he is "good for Israel." Besides the fact that he has successfully turned Iraq into a hotbed of terrorism through his bungled policies, his undermanning of the war, his secretive contract awarding to countries outside of Iraq, his support of Pentagon favorites and outsiders instead of true Iraqi reformers, he has demonstrated in a variety of other ways that he has no understanding of what exactly a war on terror entails. I could go on, but it does not matter at this point. My point is that even though he obviously is not "strong on terror," he will get strong support on that issue from people who allege that they would not otherwise vote for him. The same is true with regard to Israel, which seems to go along with terror as an issue, even though the nature of the terrorism has an entirely different political basis. Thanks to the Jewish Republican lie machine, he is viewed as the only good choice for Israel. (Even though his opponent has always enjoyed 100% approval from AIPAC).
Which leads me to believe tht in a community where everyone reads the NYTimes, and thus might have some familiarity with the more complex aspects of American policy issues, the one issue voter is not really a one issue voter.
With the growing affluence of the American Jewish community, and my town is a prime example, to judge by the McMansions and gas guzzling SUV's, the dirty little secret is that the Jews are voting for their new found economic interest and see themselves as part of the conservative business community. But they are ashamed to, because they know that in the long run, the tax cuts, privatization of Social Security, neglect of Health Care, underfunding of schools, Union busting, selling Sammy Sosa to the Cubs, repressing civil liberties, taking away a women's right to choose, and the tearing down of the wall between chrurch and state are not good for the country. But they love getting that tax cut, and they love not paying to support those outside of their insular world.
But they are ashamed, because they know they are wrong.
But who can fault them for a vote in support of Israel? After all, we in suburbia are very big Zionists! We consistently talk about the need to not give up Gaza or the West Bank, and some of us even quietly agree with the Israeli Rabbis who are telling the soldiers not to obey orders. We talk about kicking the Palestinians out, and especially if we have never carried a gun in our lives or heard one fired in anger, free criticize Israeli generals turned politicians on the left wing.
So they vote for the lummox for Lubbock. And they would have you believe that they are doing it for Israel. And in some ways they are. But don't let them tell you tat they really mind.

Now that, my friend, is a rant

Posted by: Jordan | Nov 2, 2004 4:46:02 PM

Lisa... If the axe I had to grind was a social welfare or legal issue that impacted most Americans, I would gladly participate. But being what Jordan correctly called a 'one issue voter', it makes me wonder about what's right.

When we were preparing to leave our community in connecticut, Zahava and I were both approached to play both an official and unofficial role in selecting the new Rabbi for the community. Without consulting each other we both said no because we felt it would not be fair for us to have a say in picking a leader when our impending departure meant we had no stake in his success or failure.

Jordan... now you know why I gave you no advance notice before handing you a microphone and a glass of 'bubbly' and shoving you out in front of the assembled crowd at our wedding.

Posted by: David | Nov 2, 2004 5:12:29 PM

Boker Tov from the conflicted nation we call the USA. I think that as long as you are retaining your citizenship and continue to file a US tax return you are entitled to continue voting.

There are a lot of arguments that can be made about why this is not a good idea, but there are also a lot of arguments that can be made about how many citizens do not vote.

And presumably if you are doing so it means that you have some familiarity with the candidates and the issues. That in and itself puts you a step ahead of many.

Posted by: Jack | Nov 2, 2004 5:35:27 PM

On this subject, may I direct your attention to this thoughtful editorial?


or, different format:



Posted by: carol | Nov 2, 2004 6:11:26 PM

"Lummox from Lubbock" ... I love it. :)

I think you should vote for what is best for you, David. It's each candidate's job to weigh the needs and desires of the entire voting populace. If Israel's well-being is at the top of your list, then you should vote accordingly.

Now ... whether Bush or Kerry would be better for Israel's well-being is another blog entirely. ;)

Posted by: Jim | Nov 2, 2004 7:29:48 PM

As many of us know, Bush is from Crawford, not Lubbock. But the only alliterative pejorative I could think of starting with "C" would have strained the scatalogical limits of this blog, even for an ex-sailor.

Posted by: Jordan | Nov 2, 2004 7:41:34 PM

Jack... Familiarity with the issues has never been my problem. I started getting pangs of guilt over whether to vote as an American Israeli or an Israeli American.

Carol... thanks for the link. That was a humbling editorial. However, please don't think I take the right to vote lightly. On the contrary, I'm probably over-anylizing it.

Jim... The candidates were openly courting the pro-Israel vote because the issue was important to many voters living in the US. My issue comes from being on the recieving end of the US's Israel policy, and my right to influence this... especially at the expense of making the correct choice for US domestic policy.

Like many issues, I wrote about this in order to explore my feelings and to invite informed comments/advice from others. I'm very pleased with the results on both counts.

Jordan... If the word you were going to use was 'Conservative', I'd like to thank you for using restraint. :-)

Posted by: David | Nov 2, 2004 9:32:11 PM

I'm with Zahava on this one - to me, voting is an obligation, at least as much as it is a right.

It's not even about having to file taxes and therefore being entitled to vote, although that argument is certainly compelling.

It's more that if you want to maintain citizenship, with all its rights and privileges, then you also maintain its obligations. The obvious question then, I suppose, is how are you obliged to vote? Is it (ever) OK to vote purely out of self interest, or are you actually obligated to look at what is best of the country in question (ie the US)? Or, are you in fact obliged to look at what is best for the world (and may therefore seem to be The Right Thing To Do) - a question which may not come into play at all in most elections, but most definitely does in this one.

Hard questions, I can see why it is a dilemma. And having said that as a citizen one is obliged to vote, if you find yourself unable to truly stay true to whichever of the above obligations is your pick (eg you think Kerry is better for the US and maybe even world, but a Bush win is likely to result in less deaths in Israel), maybe your obligation is to abstain? Hmm, it's harder than I thought. You've made me rethink this a bit.

That's why I like coming here. Well, one of the reasons anyway.

Posted by: Kay McCulloch | Nov 3, 2004 5:19:53 AM

Jack... Familiarity with the issues has never been my problem. I started getting pangs of guilt over whether to vote as an American Israeli or an Israeli American.

You clearly are not the first to deal with this, so my best advice is to seek out people who understand and pick their brains a little.

I suspect that you will find a satisfactory answer, even if it takes some time.

Posted by: Jack | Nov 3, 2004 7:15:45 AM

Sheesh. You people are way too nice. What's good for America IS good for Israel: the war on terror is the number one moral imperative for everyone in the world, whether they choose to recognise that or not. No point having a Democratic president who spends more money on the disadvantaged if we're going to have another 9/11 murdering thousands of innocent civilians- which is what we can look forward to under John "soft target" Kerry.

But so far it looks like that's not going to happen. Please G-d.

Posted by: Alice | Nov 3, 2004 7:27:18 AM

Kay... Now you know why I like to think out loud here! There are usually nuances and subtleties to even the 'black & white' issues. I'm glad to have a little validation of my dilemma.

Jack... I have time. Seeing as I cast my vote weeks ago, I guess it will be four years before I have to sit on the horns of this particular dilemma. For the time being, I am comfortable with my decision to vote (or at least it isn't keeping me up nights).

Alice... I wish you would get down off the fence and tell us exactly where you stand already!
:-) Glad to see you got back safely, albeit with an extended visit to the Airport holding pen. I'm sure you and the kids looked like quite the suspicious bunch!

Posted by: David | Nov 3, 2004 9:13:56 AM

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