January 18, 2005

Iraqi elections: What about the Jewish vote?

As the January 30 Iraqi elections draw closer, a new debate is brewing—in Israel. In an article in last Thursday's Ha'Aretz ("Israelis of Iraqi Origin Can Vote in Iraqi Elections," 1/13/05), journalist Yoav Stern reports that the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI) will allow Iraqis living abroad, including their children, to participate in the January 30 poll. IECI officials, eager to demonstrate the new Iraq's democratic and progressive spirit, have made it clear that anyone who left Iraq, regardless of religion or minority status, can register themselves and their children to vote.

After Israel regained independence in 1948, hundreds of thousands of Jews were expelled from the many Arab states surrounding it. Estimates range from 500,000 to close to 900,000 Jewish refugees forced to leave their houses and property behind. The vast majority were absorbed by Israel, with others immigrating to North America and parts of Europe. Whole communities, whose histories dated from ancient times, were destroyed. Those Jews who managed to remain in 1948 were uprooted in 1967 after the Six Day War.

Mordechai Ben-Porat, who aided in the absorption of his fellow Iraqi Jews in the early years of modern Israeli statehood, told The Washington Times that 130,000 Jews emigrated from Iraq. He approximates that there are nearly 300,000 Iraqi Jews today, almost all of whom live in Israel. Now, with the Iraqi elections looming, Israelis whose families were expelled face a choice: To vote or not to vote?

Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the current Israeli minster of housing and former minister of defense, is himself a refugee who left Iraq with his family at the age of 12. He has publicly declared that he, though eligible, will not vote. He also told the press that he does not expect many eligible Israelis to vote either. Despite his attitude, many Israelis who were born in Iraq or whose parents were have expressed enthusiasm at the prospect of participating in Iraq's first free election in decades. Many harbor nostalgia for their destroyed communities and the stories of life in the land between two rivers.

Ben-Porat is in favor of participation, though he has expressed dismay at the lack of polling stations in Israel—the reason being that Iraq does not have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. Interestingly, though, the IECI will allow eligible voters to use Israeli passports and drivers licenses as valid forms of identification for the purpose of voter registration.

Ran Cohen, a member of the Knesset who was born in Baghdad, told the Jerusalem Post that he would "like to influence the democratization of Iraq, and I'd like a pro-Israeli government there, but I have only one country—the state of Israel." His statement underscores the real issue fueling the debate. The IECI issued a statement saying that "every Iraqi who wants to vote can vote. We don't care if the Iraqi voters are Muslim, Christian, or Jewish."

To vote is one of the most powerful expressions of identity and national participation. Eligible Jewish voters in Israel, by participating in the Iraqi election, would in effect reject the concept of Jewish nationality, proclaiming themselves members of the Iraqi people instead. It is baffling to wonder why a Jew, having been expelled from a foreign land and having found refuge in the open arms of fellow Jews in the ancestral home of the Jewish people, would after decades wish to identify as a member of that other society and partake in its political life. The Jewish people all over the world have been struggling for the last two centuries over this issue of national identity, and the current debate among Iraqi Jews in Israel is only a microcosmic moment in a much greater social dialogue.

Those who have forgotten the links that bind together all Jews—whether they are atheist or God-fearing, liberal or conservative, living in Israel or studying in Hyde Park—will likely choose to vote on January 30, signaling their shortsightedness in the face of millennia of Jewish history.

The nation of Israel, for so many and for so long, has been a nation forgotten. A large part of Jewish society has come to believe the propaganda of our enemies, that we are simply "co-religionists." They say that we are only adherents to a faith, that thus we do not merit an independent state or the propagation of our own culture and way of life. Surely those making this argument neglect both historical fact and contemporary evidence.

I could spend several pages recalling the ancient independent Jewish states in Israel or describing the beauty of Hebrew and vernacular Jewish literature—both religious and secular—or even reflecting on the centuries-old struggle for the rebuilding of Jewish national normalcy. But the debate endures, and now there is another chapter in the Jewish saga in which our unfortunate exile and diaspora, though finally overcome, prove difficult to put to rest. All Jews, not just those whose ancestors sojourned in Iraq, must ask themselves who they really are, and whether they will acquiesce to the indignity of those who would wish us to disappear or stand up and demand to be respected as Jews without having to hide behind the name and nationality of another.