Israeli Candidates Battle Voter Apathy

Shimon Peres joins a young couple having lunch at a seaside restaurant and asks them who they are voting for in Israel’s upcoming election. They smile nervously, glance up at the swarm of photographers and TV cameras that surround the former prime minister and admit the truth: They don’t know.

“No one has convinced us what the right path is, and we ourselves don’t even know, making it harder,” says Nurit Novak, 26, as Peres, clad in a leather bomber jacket and campaigning for the Kadima Party, moves on to the next table. There are many voters left to woo.

Yarin Yeger, a 20-year-old soldier strolling along a nearby boardwalk, says she, too, feels adrift politically.

“I don’t see any of the candidates as potentially good prime ministers,” she says.

Campaigners in the March 28 election are battling voter apathy and indecision, concepts once alien to this country that for decades had voter turnout of about 80 percent and in which most people had a political camp to which they were committed.

Polls describe about 20 percent of the population as “floating voters” — still undecided this close to the election date.

Many voters feel that none of the candidates have the stature or pull of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has been in a coma since a Jan. 4 stroke.

“There is great confusion because Sharon is no longer at the helm, and people have lost their balance,” said Nitza Hameiri, 56, a real estate appraiser.

There is little sense of election excitement despite dramatic changes — a prime minister who lies comatose, leaving behind his new party; a Sephardi Jew leading the Labor Party for the first time, and Hamas’ recent victory in Palestinian elections.

Voter turnout is expected to be lower than in past elections. In 2003, it was already low, with slightly less than 69 percent of registered voters casting ballots.

The assumption that Kadima will trounce its rivals contributes to a sense of ennui, observers say. In the most recent polls, Kadima is predicted to win between 37 and 39 seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset. Those seeking change are finding it in Kadima, breaking down the Israeli electorate from its former pattern of left vs. right.

Beyond this is apathy borne from a rising mistrust of the government to effect change, disgust with recent revelations of corruption and an increasingly individualistic society that feels less of a need to be involved civically.

Voter apathy is even more apparent in Israel’s younger generation. A poll by One Voice, a grass-roots movement that encourages dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, found that 27 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 32 are interested in the upcoming elections and that 44 percent plan to vote.

Analyst Yossi Klein Halevi welcomes the establishment of Kadima, he said, and the low-key, yet “historic” election he said it seems to have prompted.

“People who complain that this is a boring election are frustrated leftists and rightists. This is our first election in which the center is not only a vague longing on the part of many Israelis but an actual option,” said Halevi, a senior fellow at Shalem Center, a think tank in Jerusalem.

“This election has changed the political map for the first time in decades. We are no longer a society defined by a right and left schism but a political system with a strong center,” he said.

Halevi sees the changes in Israeli politics as a sign of political maturation.

“One reason we have so many political parties is that we have still been in the mentality of the Jewish exile, in which you needed to find the party that represented your highest ideals precisely,” he said.

“We are seeing parties as frameworks for resolving issues through compromise,” Halevi said. “This is a realization of normal politics.”

Candidates and campaigners, however, continue to employ the language of left and right. Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud has taken to calling Olmert, “Smolmert,” a pun on the Hebrew word for left. In one of the Likud’s ad campaigns, which have been seen as the most negative among the parties, an announcer’s voice intones, “Olmert and the left will bring Hamas closer.”

Ad campaigns are used by parties of all sizes: Every night, campaign ads are broadcast for at least an hour on three national television networks.

Some of the smaller groups broadcasting include a party against high banking fees, a party representing Holocaust survivors and their children and the Green Leaf Party, which promotes legalizing marijuana and gay marriage.

In one Labor ad, party leader Amir Peretz, who is battling an image as an anti-intellectual demagogue, is seen in a mock prime ministerial office signing papers on a large desk, Israeli flags standing behind him.

Meanwhile, at the port of Tel Aviv, Yitzhak Schwartzblat watches Peres kiss a baby. This is not the first time Schwartzblat, 71, has seen Peres on the campaign trail. He remembers hearing him speak during 1955 elections at a movie hall in Jaffa.

In those days, campaigning was very different, he says.

“People then knew exactly what the message of each party was. Today it does not matter — look at Peres,” he says, referring to his switch from Labor to Kadima. “Yesterday he was in one party, today another.”

Schwartzblat would not reveal who he was voting for.

“I don’t have a lot of secrets,” he says, “but this one secret I keep.”

Awareness Week at UCLA Hit by Apathy

Last week’s anti-Semitism conference at UCLA had the potential to be powerful and mind-expanding — except that almost no one showed up.

It wasn’t just the general student population who didn’t show.

Jews didn’t show up either.

The numbers speak for themselves. Some 4,000 UCLA students identify themselves as Jewish. Yet the movie “Gentleman’s Agreement” and the post-film discussion brought in roughly 20 students. And a workshop on curbing anti-Semitism drew only eight.

It wasn’t the conference programming, which offered compelling events: Polish Holocaust survivor Bella Friedman told an emotional tale of suffering at the hands of Nazis. The week’s events concluded with a hopeful look toward the future and toward Israel, featuring Donna Rosenthal telling tales from her book “The Israelis.” Students were able to connect to Israel’s existence to Jewish identity, and they addressed concerns that campus anti-Semitism is often masked as anti-Zionism.

Rosenthal underscored the transformation from Jewish despair in the Holocaust to Jewish hope in Israel with her discussion of the Nuremberg laws, which made anti-Semitism state policy in Nazi Germany.

“The same ancestral connection to Judaism that got you a one-way ticket to Auschwitz … got you a one-way ticket to Israel,” she said.

Although anti-Semitism was the main focus of the conference, organizers wanted to end on a hopeful note that stressed the importance of supporting Israel.

The Jewish Student Union (JSU) of UCLA sponsored Anti-Semitism Awareness Week. Rosenthal’s appearance was co-sponsored by the campus Hillel.

Event organizers concluded that most Jewish students just don’t feel threatened by anti-Semitism.

“We have it lucky, in this large Jewish community of Los Angeles, that we don’t necessarily feel the anti-Semitism,” said Deborah Greene, a fourth-year student who serves as JSU vice president.

In other words, the Los Angeles Jewish community — the third largest outside Israel — provides a strong and supportive environment, which creates apathy towards issues such as anti-Semitism, issues this conference attempted to address.

The UCLA campus itself has been the scene of “anti-Zionist” events with more than a tinge of anti-Semitism, including the staging of mock Israeli checkpoints and the placing of Nazi posters in dorms. Anti-Semitism at other campuses has involved vandalism targeting Jewish organizations and hate speech.

Yet students walked right by these events.

“Lots of people feel that anti-Semitism happens less now,” said Andy Green, JSU president and a third-year student. “People ignore or neglect it. This hate still does exist, though it is easy to say that it is something of the past.”

UCLA’s college paper, The Daily Bruin, walked past, too — electing to ignore the conference.

“Had there been a more overt act [of anti-Semitism] that really impacted the campus and added momentum,” said editor Charles Proctor, the conference probably would’ve been covered. “[Anti-Semitism Awareness Week] just did not create a particularly excited reaction from the staff.”

Such apathy is a danger in itself, said Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, executive director of Hillel at UCLA: “The greatest threat is not from without, but indifference from within.”

That indifference was on full display this week at UCLA’s anti-Semitism conference.

Rona Ram, a fourth-year student majoring in communications studies with a minor in Jewish studies, is president of Hillel at UCLA.

Voter Apathy High Among Israeli Arabs

Omar Baransi, a 71-year-old retired building contractor with
a lined, leathery face, brags that he won’t be voting in Israel’s general
election on Jan. 28. “We don’t trust anyone these days,” he said, “not even the
Arab candidates. We’ve been citizens for 55 years and nothing has changed.”

Abdul Halim, 42, a school janitor in a gray track suit,
joins the table at a coffee shop in Taiba, a sprawling Arab village one mile
from the West Bank border east of Netanya. “People here are very frustrated,”
he said. “They are disgusted by the situation in Israel and the West Bank.”

He said he will vote for Azmi Bishara, the radical
philosophy professor who scandalized Jewish Israelis by going to Damascus and
praising Hezbollah. The Supreme Court overturned a ban on Bishara’s running for
the Knesset. “At least he’s an Arab,” the janitor explains. “We have to stand
by him, even if I know he won’t do anything to help us.”

The pair are not alone. Aas Atrash, an Israeli Arab
pollster, expects more than 30 percent of the 550,000 Arab voters (out of an
electorate of more than 4.7 million) to stay away. Of those who do vote, he
predicts that more than 60 percent will support Arab parties.

In 1999, when they could vote separately for parliament and
prime minister, Labor’s Ehud Barak won 95 percent of the Arab ballots. Now that
Israel has reverted to a single vote for party lists, Atrash thinks Labor will
get barely 10 percent. “If the Arabs compare Amram Mitzna to Ariel Sharon,” he
said, “they prefer Mitzna. But they won’t vote for him.”

Nihad Massarweh, a 36-year-old restaurant owner, was one of
those voted for Barak. This time, he said, he’s not voting for anyone, Jew or
Arab. “I don’t see any of the candidates who are willing to make peace — and
even before that to look after their own citizens,” he insisted. “They’re
remote from us. They don’t understand our needs.”

Taiba is the home of Ahmed Tibi, another Arab legislator
whose candidacy was reinstated by the Supreme Court. But local ties don’t seem
to help. “None of the candidates are worth getting up in the morning and voting
for,” Kais Baransi, an angry 25-year-old computer engineer in designer shades
and faded jeans, said with a snort. “What have Tibi and Bishara achieved?
Nothing. They’re just talk. I don’t trust them. Even the Islamic Movement only
wants to build mosques.”

The same jaundiced response could be heard everywhere in a
day’s pre-election drive around the “Triangle,” a cluster of Arab towns and
villages that are nearer Palestinian Tulkarem and Qalqiliya than Israeli
Netanya and Kfar Saba.

People feel isolated and neglected, doubly so since the
police shot dead 13 young Arab citizens in pro-Palestinian riots in autumn,
2000. With the intifada literally within earshot, there is little trust on
either side.

Jews no longer come to shop in the Arab markets or nibble
kebabs and hummus. Tawfiq Ghaneim, the genial deputy mayor of Baqa el Gharbiya,
confides that he doesn’t go to Jewish towns very often either. “There’s a bad
feeling,” he said. “The Arabs might bomb me, and the Jews think I’m a

Jewish businessmen are shying away from joint ventures.
Ghaneim estimates unemployment among the town’s 20,000 inhabitants at 35
percent, three times the national average. Arab graduates say they find it hard
to make a career in the public service.

The deputy mayor complains that the government doesn’t give
the council enough money to build a sewage purification plant or to maintain
roads. Many children go to school in rented apartments, he said, because there
aren’t enough classrooms.

Kifah Massarwi, Baqa’s community development officer, is
active in Arab-Jewish reconciliation groups. But, like the men in the Taiba
coffee shop, she said she couldn’t bring herself to vote Labor. It’s not just
because the party was in power when the police shot the young Arabs. The
35-year-old Haifa University graduate is not convinced that Ehud Barak was
really seeking an agreement with Yasser Arafat at Camp David in July 2000.

“He didn’t handle the negotiations well,” she said. “He didn’t
mean to give and to compromise. At the same time, he couldn’t manage the
economy or our social problems. He had lots of good ideas, but he didn’t know
how to put them into practice. He didn’t know how to be a prime minister.”

Massarwi acknowledged former mayor Mitzna’s successful
integration of Haifa’s Arab minority, but insisted: “Mitzna still represents
the Labor Party. Two months ago, they were part of the government. Labor’s
Benjamin Ben-Eliezer was defense minister. He said he was defending the Israeli
people, but for us, the army was hurting our people.”