Campaigning in Berlin to give Israelis abroad the right to vote

An Israeli activist living in Berlin explains how she is working to get half a million expats the right to participate in elections at home.

Protests against Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his residence in May 2020.
Protests against Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his residence in May 2020.

Berlin - With the Israeli parliamentary elections scheduled for 23 March 2021, Israeli activists in Berlin have launched Defend Israeli Democracy, a petition that is calling for the right to vote for Israelis living abroad. The initiative was founded by Marianne Matyash, the daughter of former Israeli ambassador Efi Ben Matityahu. She moved to Berlin with her partner and first child in 2016.Right now, Matyash is pregant with her second child, one of the reasons she won't be able to fly to Israel to vote. Because of the intricacies of Israeli naturalisation and residency laws, citizens not living in Israel are not allowed to vote - estimated at more than 500,000 Israelis abroad. 

Matyash intends to talk with all of the future 120 Israeli parliamentarians and with a united coalition of all Israeli communities around the world - including the large communities in New York, London and Melbourne - to push for future change. They've already established a large network of Israeli expats in solidarity with the "Coming to Balfour'' protest movement, which takes place every week outside of the Israeli prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. Mati Shemoelof - himself an Israeli expat in Berlin - talked to Matyash about the initiative that has already gained traction on social media.

Mati Shemoelof: Will you fly to Israel to vote  in the coming elections?

Marianne Matyash: I couldn't if I wanted to because I will be at the end of my third trimester of my pregnancy. Otherwise, I definitely would try. Furthermore, in these elections, it is slightly unclear if it is possible to go because at the moment you need at least two weeks of isolation once you land. You can’t vote during quarantine. And currently there are no flights to Israel. Which is part of the reason that we are starting this initiative.

You founded the Defending Israel Democracy movement in Berlin. Now, you're at the forefront of a worldwide movement to get voting rights for Israeli expats. Why is this coming from an Israeli in Berlin?

This is just a very close subject to my heart. I’ve spent a lot of years as a representative of Israel abroad. My identity is a complex one because of my upbringing as the daughter of an ambassador. It is something from my life, from my blood – it is who I am.

Why does Israel not give to vote to those living abroad?

First, it has to do with the traditional narrative of Israel where you have to do Aliya [A Zionist term for immigration to Israel] in which you have to be part of the country; you have to be very physically present. That is the way Israeli people view people who leave Israel. But I think this is really outdated considering that we live in a very global economy and a lot of Israelis leave for several years and then come back. It is a vital part of our economy. But we haven’t updated it in our emotional culture. Another reason is that we have a very unusual law in Israel regarding citizenship: if you are a Jew living abroad you are basically eligible to receive citizenship immediately once you reach Israel [as part of the Jewish right of return]. This creates a precarious situation because you have more Jews living abroad then those living in Israel. So theoretically, with this new law, anyone who wants to vote abroad could come to Israel, receive citizenship and then just leave and vote. And you would have more people who never resided in Israel, who are not actually Israeli, who would determine the lives of those who are living in Israel. And that is something that we all want to avoid. So it is a little bit complex in terms of the law. And now is the time to deal with it head first. And settle the legal loophole.

Was there never a right to vote from abroad?

It started with nobody able to vote from abroad. In the 1990s, official representatives from Israel, like the ministry of foreign affairs, KKL, - these kind of organisations – received the consideration to be able to vote from abroad through the embassies. Now, people who are on official duty are eligible to vote by mail.

You decided to concentrate on giving the right to vote only to Israeli citizens with Israeli residency but not to Israelis who lost their citizenship, although Israel sees itself as responsible for all Jewish lives abroad in the past, present and future. They even brought Kafka’s archive back to Israel although he wasn’t a Zionist.

We don't want to give all Israelis the right to vote. Rather we want make it even stricter. As a first step we ask that every Israeli who currently holds Israeli residency should be able to vote from abroad. If you have been abroad for less than five years and you are still paying the Israeli national insurance, you should be able to access the right to vote from abroad. We think there are about 500,000 Israelis around the world with Israeli residency.

Are you a resident of Israel right now, while living in Berlin?


So, you are fighting for a right that wouldn't apply to you.

First of all, I am trying to bring it into the public discussion. I think that the subject of what it means to be Israeli and the democratic right to vote is something that it is heartfelt for us all and it doesn’t matter if we are currently residents or not. I grew up in Israel, I served in the army. I lived there most of my life. But right now, I don’t live there. And officially by these standards, I won’t be able to vote abroad. I can still vote in Israel. But just because the way the law is set up right now, we want to be very careful. But I am starting this fight because I love Israel and I care about democracy in Israel. I happen to be a person who grew up outside of Israel most of the time because my father was an ambassador. I want Israelis abroad to be recognised as part of the social structure of Israel. I think that it is a very important step. I think that it brings up these philosophical subjects that we are avoiding about what it means to be Israeli. That will help resolve a lot of issues beyond just the right to vote. Right now, we are fighting to get recognition for the right to vote for Israeli residents abroad, but I think that we need to go forward and fix the way right of return law. This law shouldn’t keep us captive in the mindset from the 1950s.

The right of return is only for Jews.

Your first question was ‘why is it so difficult?’ That is why it is so difficult. Because we are entangled with all these issues we are not willing to confront.

Referring to Israelis living in Berlin, Yair Lapid, one the main opposition figures, said in 2014: "These people are anti-Zionists. I’m a Zionist, I think Jews should live in Israel”. Are you optimistic about finding support among Israeli politicians?

Yes, I am. Lapid’s comments were very populist but in reality, this subject has been brought up several times from politicians from the different side of politics. In fact, Benjamin Netanyahu himself said in the past that he supports legislation on this matter.

Why do you think Netanyahu would allow it? Does he believe there more rightwingers abroad?

Most people think that. Actually, the last time it was brought up by Nachman Shai and David Bittan, together in 2016. The whole process was blocked by the leftwing and religious parties. This is not a leftist struggle at all. Nethanyahu himself thinks that it will benefit him. He spent most of his youth and early adulthood abroad.

Why it is so urgent to ask for voting rights for Israeli expats right now?

At this point in time, I think it is a very sensitive subject. due to the corona measures, a lot of people who would fly to vote in Israel, now can’t. Flights are cancelled. The Israeli airports were closed.

Maybe it's too late for these elections?

We'are not really aiming for these elections, for several reasons. We're bringing the subject up because it is an opportunity to discuss the subject. And it is an important moment because a lot of people are already talking about it. And we are giving a voice to something that has already been discussed. We're looking forward to a fruitful cooperation with the future MPs in the Knesset. We want to find partners there that really could take this issue to legislation.

I wrote about Israeli politics while living abroad. Often, I got these comments to my articles: “You can’t be at two places at the same time. You aren’t paying for the cost of living in Israel. Why do you want to influence Israeli politics from the outside? Why don’t you come and influence it from within?”

I really don’t understand that mindset. Honestly. In terms of what you’ve said about the privilege, do you really think that most people living in Israel are trapped there? I think that most people in Israel love living in Israel and it is not a bad thing. I don’t understand what my privilege is.

In Israel they have on-going occupation and occasional wars. Here we don’t have them.

We have antisemitism here in Germany. To be an immigrant is no picnic.

I understand. But still….

There are Israelis who are students and living abroad and have better opportunities in universities abroad and then they return. Sixty per cent of the doctors in Israel completed their studies abroad. These doctors returned to Israel and they are the backbone of Israeli medicine. Don’t they deserve to vote while they are studying? What about Israeli startups that go abroad? We live in a globalised world, and people are moving around.

For more information visit:

This article was submitted as part of our Open Source initiative. With Open Source, Berliner Verlag gives freelance writers and anyone interested the opportunity to contribute articles containing relevant content and written to a professional standard. Selected contributions will be published and paid for.