Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Voting Rights Act

03/20/2015 06:59 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2015

Among American Jews, political observers and all of us who care about Israel's future, the recent Israeli election raised a host of complex and important issues. What does it mean for Israel's security, for religious pluralism or for international negotiations with Iran? How about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the long sought after two-state solution? What I don't think anyone expected was for elections in Israel to shine a light on the importance of voting rights here in America.

I believe in Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state. In fact, I wish all other nations in the region would follow Israel's lead and also protect every citizen's right to express him or herself freely and without fear at the ballot box. So it was with deep sadness and concern that on Election Day, I read this statement on the prime minister's Facebook page: "The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls."

No public figure should lament his fellow citizens' right to vote. Indeed, that right is fundamental to the health of any democracy, which Israel has been since its founding nearly 68 years ago. In Israel as in the United States, devotion to democratic values is meant to transcend politics and partisanship. I am not alone in that belief. Not only has the leadership of my own branch of Judaism roundly condemned the prime minister's remarks, but we were joined by many others in the broader Jewish community.

The sad truth is that voting rights are not being celebrated or even protected as they must be -- in Israel or in the United States. As troubling as the prime minister's words were, they are reminiscent of the sentiments expressed in 2012 by then-Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan who lamented voter turnout "especially in urban areas." And the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder invalidating key parts of the Voting Rights Act that has for decades, and with bipartisan support, thwarted efforts to limit access to the polls, was similarly misguided. It's clear that ensuring the equal right of all citizens to vote remains sadly aspirational.

The fallout from the Shelby decision, combined with unfounded assertions about instances of voter fraud, have led to voter identification laws and other steps that disproportionately restrict access to the polls for people of color, the elderly and other minority and vulnerable citizens of our democracy.

Two weeks ago, I stood with thousands of others in Selma, Alabama, marking the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march for voting rights. I was there because I am deeply proud of the long history American Jews have fighting for voting rights, from the thousands of activists who marched alongside their African American sisters and brothers in the 1960s to those who helped draft the Voting Rights Act in the conference room of the Reform Movement's Religious Action Center. Those rights must be defended in the U.S. as in Israel.

Each of us must reject initiatives that seek to constrict rights, instead of expand them. Rather than passively celebrating the democratic values that the United States and Israel share, we must hold both nations to a higher standard and demand an uncompromising commitment to ensuring and, indeed, encouraging, access to the polls for all citizens. We need a commitment from our leaders to advocate for the inalienable right to vote -- even for their most strident critics.

All democracies are judged by how well they uphold the rights of their minority communities. It is incumbent upon each of us -- as Jews who care about the health and future of the state of Israel, as descendants of ancestors who spent centuries dwelling in nations that did not allow them the right to vote, and as Americans who treasure the rights enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights including religious freedom and voting rights -- to reach out across the divides of race, class and faith to build a more equal and more just future for all.

Congress must act now and pass the Voting Rights Amendment Act. And Prime Minister Netanyahu must clearly and unequivocally retract and apologize for his election eve statement. Both those steps are vital to helping ensure trust and faith in the electoral process, the rights of all citizens to speak their mind and the robust health of two vibrant democracies.

Rabbi Pesner is the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism