As I write this column, reports are that negotiations over a national unity government in Israel led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have broken down. Prime Minister Netanyahu may return the mandate to form a government to President Rivlin, who would then task Benny Gantz with forming a national unity government. By the time you read this column, the situation may have changed. One possible outcome is a Gantz-led government, which would include Blue and White, Likud, and Yisrael Beiteinu. Such a government would be somewhat more amenable to concessions to the Palestinians and far less accommodating or even downright hostile to the needs of the Torah-observant community.
After carefully studying the results of the two Israeli elections held this year and the complex formula for allocating seats in the Knesset, I cannot predict the future, but I can say what would have happened if people had acted differently and the lessons we can learn.
News reports after the April election stated that Prime Minister Netanyahu had won re-election and would likely form a government of Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism, the United Right, Kulanu, and Yisrael Beiteinu with a total of 65 Knesset seats. When Avigdor Liberman, the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, with five Knesset seats, refused to join a government that in his words “caved in” to the demands of the chareidi parties, Netanyahu was left with just 60 seats. The Knesset dissolved itself and new elections were scheduled.
In the April elections 138,598 votes were cast for the New Right Party led by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, short of the 3.25% of the vote needed to cross the threshold and gain seats in the Knesset. Had those votes been cast for the United Right, the party with which the New Right did unite for the September election, the United Right would have received 8 Knesset seats, giving Likud and its allies 62 seats, enough to form a government without Liberman. If the 118,031 votes cast for Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party had been cast for the United Right, the Likud-aligned parties would have won 63-64 seats.
In the September election, the number of seats won by Likud-aligned parties went down from 60 to 55. The votes for Yisrael Beiteinu went up from five to eight, as Liberman became the darling of secularists, hostile to the Torah-observant community. The Arab parties went up from 10 seats to 13, largely as a result of a much higher turnout among Arab voters. There were 127,536 more votes cast in September than there were in April. There were 133,104 more votes cast for the Arab parties in September than there were in April. The increase in turnout among Arab voters was higher than the increase in the overall turnout.
83,609 votes were cast for Otzma Yehudit, a right-wing party that failed to cross the threshold.
Had the turnout among Arab voters been the same in September as it was in April, and if Otzma Yehudit supporters had voted for Yemina, a merger of the United Right and the New Right, the number of seats for the Arab Joint List would have gone down from 13 to 10 and the number of seats for Yemina would have gone up from 7 to 9. This would have given Likud and its allies 59 seats, still short of a majority but in a much stronger position to form a government.
There are two important lessons we can learn from these figures. One is that who turns out to vote can have a major impact on the results. The other is more difficult to accept but may be even more critical. People who voted for the New Right and Zehut in April and Otzma Yehudit in September no doubt believed that they were standing on principle. But the votes cast for parties that failed to cross the threshold literally did not count. The people who voted for those parties effectively threw out their votes and may well have paved the way for a government that is more willing to give in to Palestinian demands and hostile to the needs of the Torah-observant community. We need to think of the likely consequences of our political decisions. The failure to act pragmatically can lead to the defeat of the very ideals and values we are seeking to promote.
Kol Yisrael areivin zeh la’zeh – All Jews are responsible for one another. Our elections can have a profound impact on Israel and the Jewish community in Queens and throughout America.
Israel receives over $3 billion a year in military aid – and important diplomatic support from the United States. Presidents and members of Congress come and go. If we want to ensure the ongoing US-Israel alliance, we need to make sure that Israel enjoys strong support from both political parties.
The eiruvin, the shuls, the mikvaos, and other community facilities we take for granted today were built in the face of significant opposition because our local officials stood by us. Some did so out of a genuine concern for our community. Others did so because they believed we were a powerful political force. Whichever the case may be, the support of our local officials was critical in building a strong and vibrant Queens Jewish community. Many of our community institutions receive significant government funding. As other groups vie for funding and political influence, we need to work to elect local officials who are attuned to our concerns. With the New York State Department of Education trying to dictate what is taught and who can teach in our yeshivos and day schools, the role of our state legislators will be more important than ever.
We cannot vote in the elections in Israel. But our responsibility to our fellow Jews demands that we participate in the elections here. Whether we like it or not, decisions that impact on our community are made by our elected officials, and those officials are chosen in the Democratic Primary.
The two lessons that I have described from the elections in Israel are highly relevant to the Democratic Primaries.
Who votes in the election makes a difference. Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape, dealt in depth with the various political tribes in America. The one of greatest interest to us is the Progressive Activists. They are largely white, affluent, young, and secular. Some 69% of them are “ashamed to be an American.” But while they are ashamed of their country, 63% of them are proud of their political ideology. And 73% of them are engaged in politics as a hobby – more than twice the rate of the public at large. These are the people who are most likely to vote in primaries, to donate to political campaigns, and to volunteer for candidates. Despite their small overall numbers, they can dominate a low-turnout Democratic Primary. This is what makes it possible for candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar to be elected to Congress. We need to vote in the Democratic Primary to counter the influence of the Progressive Activists.
The failure to act pragmatically can lead to the defeat of the very ideals we are seeking to promote. The reality is that Queens is overwhelmingly Democratic. In a borough in which only 25% of the population is white, that is not going to change. In recent elections, Republican candidates who had overwhelming support in the Torah-observant community did not even carry Kew Gardens Hills. The winner of the Democratic Primary will win the General Election. If you fail to vote in the Democratic Party, you are effectively giving away your right to choose our representatives to people who are at best indifferent and at worst hostile to the needs and concerns of our community.
To vote in the Democratic Party you must be an enrolled Democrat. The party that you enroll in has nothing to do with your political beliefs. It simply allows you to vote in that party’s primary. It does not make you a member of the party or require you to pay dues. There is nothing to stop you from voting for the opposing party in the General Election.
Many of us feel that the Republican Party better represents our ideals and values and are concerned about the direction of the Democratic Party. This is understandable. There are many ways to be supportive of the Republican Party, if you are so inclined. Vote Republican in the General Election, donate to Republican candidates, and volunteer in their campaigns. But enrolling as a Republican does nothing to advance the ideology of the Republican Party. To the contrary, you will be giving up your right to vote in the election that really makes a difference. You will be doing exactly what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and “the Squad” want you to do. You will be sitting on the sidelines and leaving them a clear path to victory.
Being an independent at heart and voting for the best candidates, regardless of party, is often the right way to go. But if you wait for the General Election, you may well find out that the choice of who will represent us has already effectively been made.
The time to be eligible to vote in next year’s Democratic Primary is running out. But the books will still be open for a few more days. The deadline for those of us who are already registered to vote to switch our enrollment and be able to vote in next year’s Democratic Primary is October 11. You can do it easily at ABA.Turbovote.org or at www.ny.gov/services/register-vote. Do it now!
By Manny Behar