Debate Series Takes Place Nationwide on Election Participation
One of I’lam’s central goals is the empowerment of the Palestinian Community in Israel (PCI) – to help members of this community to develop their confidence, sense of voice, and civic participation by providing them with opportunities to become engaged in society. I’lam does this by running campaigns, organizing events, and encouraging debate within the PCI and between Israeli communities. Through such activities we also encourage the spread of important values in society, such as diversity and pluralism.
In the spirit of such values, I’lam led a project early in 2015, organizing six nationwide workshops in which prominent political figures from the PCI could deliberate with audience members on the importance of participating in the elections. The project was supported by the Hans Seidel Foundation, and aimed to raise awareness of the importance of civic engagement, empowering the PCI and giving them a space in which to constructively promote and discuss their interests.
Arab turnout in Israeli elections has seen a decline in the last 15 years, with only 53% of eligible Arab citizens voting in 2009 – compared to 75% a decade earlier. This turnout was also significantly less than that of the population as a whole, which in 2009 stood at 65%. This falling participation can be attributed at least in part to growing discontent and disenfranchisement amongst the PCI regarding political participation. Despite constituting 20% of the Israeli population, Israeli Arabs have never had a representative party included in a governmental coalition, and even Arab members of the Knesset are largely seen as ineffectual. Feeling undervalued and without control over their lives has fed the discontent of the PCI regarding the political scene, leading to this significant fall in participation in elections. Another factor is the issue of legitimizing Israel as a genuine democracy, which has also led some Arab citizens to boycott elections altogether. The problem is that low Arab turnout in the votes has contributed to the rise of right-wing political parties to positions of power, causing a drift towards increasingly nationalistic policies which threaten state-minority relations. This in turn can further increase the frustration and resentment within the Arab community, leading to a vicious cycle.
Given these outcomes it is hardly surprising that many members of the PCI have moved steadily into a boycott of the electoral system altogether, abstaining from voting either in protest of the Jewish state, or simply out of indifference. But in a sense it seems counter-intuitive to meet a frustration over a lack of political influence by rejecting the right to vote – perhaps the most effective tool that they have for promoting their interests. Indeed, in 1992 Arab votes facilitated the rise to power of Yitzchak Rabin, who accelerated optimistic peace processes in the region, and under whose leadership the Oslo Accords and the Israeli-Jordan Peace Treaty were signed.
This reflects I’lam’s own position, that civic engagement and political participation are essential components of the civic responsibilities that citizens have. “We have a moral motivation to take into consideration”, says I’lam’s General Director Amal Jamal. “We have a responsibility to the next generations – a responsibility to be engaged, and to make every effort possible to improve and protect our rights. Being engaged in the political system will either influence that system and lead to change; or will demonstrate that the system is not representative. Giving up on participation altogether offers no viable alternative on how to influence the system”.
The workshops led by I’lam in this project presented members of the PCI with an opportunity to be engaged and to participate, to voice their opinions and concerns with people of influence, and to have meaningful and constructive discussions on the important of voting, not only as a right but also a responsibility. The discussions aimed to contribute to the democratization of Israeli politics, and to highlight the potential role of the PCI in shaping it.
Despite difficulties in attracting guest panelists and audience members given the vast number of political events going on at the time, the workshops were very successful, facilitating engaging discussions on the importance of elections and the ability of the PCI and it’s political representatives to face future challenges. The events and outcomes were well broadcast through social media, and participants were encouraged to further circulate their lessons learned among the wider public.
As it happened, the newly formed Joint List of Arab parties earned 13 seats in the Knesset following this year’s elections, which saw voter turnout in the Arab sector rise to 64% - a significant increase from 56% two years ago and 53% in 2009. While this percentage is still lower than the total voter turnout for the population as a whole (around 71%), this difference of 7.5% is significantly lower than the 12% difference in voter turnout in the 2009 election. Furthermore, the Arab parties received 27% more votes this year than in 2013 – the highest increase of any political party. It seems that, while voter turnout in the general population in Israel is rising, election turnout in the Arab community is rising faster.
The panel at the Haifa debate
Full house at the debate in Kafr Yasif