JISR A-ZARKA — At the age of 33, after a decade of political activity and coming to terms with what it means to be an Arab-Israeli, Sami al-Ali is going to vote this month for the first time. “I realized that by not voting for all those years, I am actually supporting Israel’s xenophobic right,” he said, sitting in a café in his home village of Jisr-a-Zarka, “so this election will be my first.”

Sami al-Ali (photo credit: Assaf Uni)

Sami al-Ali (photo credit: Assaf Uni)

Ali, who helps with media communications for Balad (an Arab-Israeli political party with three seats in the current Knesset), pointed to the many orange-colored signs that hung on the power poles lining the village’s potholed main street. “We did that,” he said, “and this is just the start. I have been encouraging people to vote Balad since ’99, but somehow always found ideological reasons to avoid casting a ballot myself. One must not be too dogmatic, though. I realized that by abstaining from voting, I am doing more harm to the Arab parties than good. My task now is to share that insight.”

(Data and graph provided by the Abraham Fund))

(Data and graph provided by the Abraham Fund)

As the general election nears, the subject of why Arab-Israelis vote in such meager numbers rises again. Arab participation rates have dropped significantly over the past decades, and in the last elections in 2009, only one in two Arab-Israelis voted. If the rates matched those of the Jewish population (64%), Arab parties could increase their power by 40%. Should the Arab population vote en masse on January 22, like the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, it could potentially reach 20 seats (out of 120), almost doubling the 11 members of Knesset representing the community in the outgoing parliament.

The chances of that happening, experts agree, are very low.

Jisr-a-Zarka, north of Caesarea, which is often billed as one of Israel’s poorest villages, may help to explain why. Here, only one in five eligible residents voted in the 2009 elections, perhaps showing that the socioeconomic situation plays a key role in participation rates. “People here are constantly worried about their survival — they don’t have time or care for politics,” explains Ali, who was born and raised here.

In the village, which is wedged between Israel’s coastal highway and the coast itself, some 80% of families live below the poverty line (according to Central Bureau of Statistics data), the average income is half that of the Israeli average, and only 3% of the 12,500 inhabitants have an academic education. “Beyond the tough economic situation,” Ali added, “there is no political awareness, no feeling of involvement in matters of importance, a kind of despair from national-level politics.”

That despair, according to a study conducted by the Abraham Foundation Initiatives, is the main reason for the shrinking voting numbers and the growing alienation of Arab-Israelis from the political process. “The decision of some Arab citizens to abstain from voting typically stems from practical considerations based on this sense of ineffectualness,” claims the study, which was published last month.

“It’s actually a very pragmatic decision by the Arab population,” says Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu, co-executive director of the foundation. He puts the blame on the big political parties. “The Arab-Israeli citizen thinks to himself: ‘If my political leaders are not seen as possible partners by the mainstream parties, and will not have any power or chance to be part of the coalition, then why should I vote for them?’”

According to the study, which included several focus groups and public opinion surveys, other reasons for the sector’s political alienation include the perceived failure by Arab-Israeli politicians to address the real issues troubling their voters, and simple logistical problems, which make it difficult for Arabs to vote. As for boycotting elections out of ideological reasons, like Ali did for the past four elections, Be’eri-Sulitzeanu says that, surprisingly, only 17% of those surveyed supported such action.

“When we asked Arabs in Israeli what the most pressing political issue for them is,” he adds, “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came only at number four. That means there are a lot of socioeconomic issues which are highly important for Arab-Israelis, and are being ignored right now.”

Jisr al-Zarka (photo credit: Assaf Uni)

Jisr a Zarka (photo credit: Assaf Uni)

These findings are echoed in the view of another Jisr resident, who stops to discuss politics before catching a shared-taxi on the village’s main street. “To tell you the truth” says one villager, who asked not to be named, “this time I decided to vote for Shas,” the ultra-Orthodox political party identified with Sephardi Jews. “Our [Arab] politicians seem to care more about the Palestinians in the West Bank than about us,” he says, “and if I ask myself what did they ever do for me, the answer is nothing. At least with Shas I know something will be done for the poor in Israel, which we are a part of.”

“I used to be a little afraid of them,” he adds with a smile, “but since I started working in a restaurant in Or Akiva [a neighboring town], I met many Shas voters and found we are really like-minded.”

What’s more, he promises, he will bring 200 votes for Shas in Jisr. A question as to whether he’ll be paid for such efforts goes unanswered.

Voting patterns of Arab-Israelis have changed over the years, reflecting the changing nature of the relationship with the Jewish population. In the 1950s and ’60s, participation rates soared to around 85%. The main reason, according to researchers from the Israel Democracy Institute, was direct pressure from the military authorities which once controlled the Arab populations. The main parties receiving Arab votes, accordingly, were the Zionist ones, like Labor precursor Mapai.

As political awareness grew in the Arab community during the ’70s, the communist Hadash party rose to prominence. That party still represents a firmly leftist, social-democratic view, different from the nationalistic attitudes of Balad and the Muslim appeal of Ra’am-Ta’al, which represents the Islamic Movement. Still, Zionist parties like Labor, the Likud and later Kadima received many votes from Arab-Israelis, whether out of ideological support, money, or election promises. That phenomenon has seriously diminished over the last decade, researchers found.

“It’s tough to explain why there is no general mobilization of the Arabs to vote for their own parties, and in this way fight the right-wing trend which is sweeping Israel,” Ali says. “Perhaps the community is too weakened to be involved politically; perhaps the fact that families play such a major role in Arab society has something to do with it.” Participation in local municipality elections, for example, where almost every family has affiliations and interests, is radically higher than in the national vote. Participation rates reached 90% in 2003, much higher than those in the Jewish population.

As Ali talks, the street cafés and lottery stations of Jisr bustle nearby, and a group of children walk past to the local school. He looks their way and remarks that the non-participating trend must be reversed soon, before it becomes the norm among the Arab population’s younger, potential first-time voters.

“My work now focuses on those who recently finished high school,” he says. “Here in Jisr, that’s around 350 people each year. I tell them, ‘You learned about democracy, now practice it yourselves.’”