Two rakish young men with ponytails order drinks at a bar.
“What'll it be?” asks the barman in Hebrew. He, too, is thin, with shoulder-length gray hair. One of the two men leans forward and says, “Make it two chasers – freedom and democracy – please!'
They all laugh heartily.
Thus begins a paid political ad for the Pirate Party, one of a range of fringe parties competing for votes in Israel's parliamentary elections, to be held Tuesday.
If you've ever been tempted, as I have, to write-in “Mickey Mouse” on your ballot, you'll understand why I jumped at the chance to meet up with the people ordering – and purporting to serve – shots of freedom and democracy. They could be found at a Pirate Party media event at the heart of Jerusalem.
I expected to see semi-stoned, loony twenty-somethings wielding cutlasses and sporting 18th-century tricorne hats, playing “Walking the Plank.” Instead, it felt more like a family get-together in a country cottage. I spied no pirates but did see Israeli parents who had brought their kids to play on an open patio.
A middle-aged man greeted me in a stone-walled alcove turned into a quaint art gallery. Roni Jacobowitz, an academic from Berlin now living in Israel, smiled when I asked if he was a pirate. “Indeed,” he replied. “In Germany we've had a Pirate Party for some time, so I've come to help get it started here in Israel.”
Jacobowitz explained that there are currently about 40 Pirate Parties around the world. Germany has at least 30,000 members. In fact, he said, several German state parliaments have Pirate party members. So does the Czech Republic. A mayor in Finland is a Pirate. The Tunisian Culture Minister is a Pirate.
So what is a pirate?
As if on cue, the young man in the television ad entered the room. He wore a pirate hat and a cutlass stenciled onto his T-shirt like a dress tie.
“Hey, I'm Noam, how's it goin'?” he asked in a perfect American accent. “I'm sorry there's not much of a turnout tonight. The other two party leaders are being interviewed on Israeli TV, so most of the press is following them. Here, we can stream it on the internet.'
A documentary producer, Noam Kuzar (he prefers the spelling Kuzarrr) is 31 and was born and raised in Jerusalem. His mother is American, thus the accent. As I watched Noam navigate effortlessly on his laptop through live and taped TV ads, appearances, and tutorials about his party, I looked around and noticed that other Pirate Party members were doing the same.
“Do you have to be a computer nerd to be a Pirate?” I asked, still unclear about the Pirate Party’s platform. “It helps,” Kuzar said.
“Well I'm no computer nerd!” Roni Jacobowitz interjected. “I'd say to be a Pirate, you have to be an artist, or a writer, a free-thinker.”
“Or a nerd!” Kuzar fired back. “In a sentence: Human beings are here for a limited amount of time and should be free as much as we can – we have the technology, we have the means, we have the infrastructure. So why not?”
In Israel, fringe parties are, taken as a whole, politically significant. Many Israeli voters are tired of back-door coalitions between mainstream parties, so they've turned increasingly to minority parties such as the Pirates – not just out of protest, but because, behind the humor and disguise, they promote popular policies. Although no fringe party has yet received the two percent needed to win a seat in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament), the latest polls indicate that as many as eight percent of voters will vote for a fringe party this year. That means fewer seats for established parties.
The Pirate Party grew out of the digital revolution. “Think of us as a political Wikipedia,” Kuzar said. “We share a digital culture. The paradigm is no longer the kibbutz in Israel. It's YouTube.”
They called themselves 'pirates' to spoof one of their main “planks” – that information should be free and shared by all. When pressed, they do believe in paying for creative work online, but only if that money goes to the artist and not middlemen.
Kuzar was most passionate about the inalienable right to surf the internet. “When we are elected there will be free high speed Internet for everyone, with equal uploading and downloading speed, so that the internet can be a means of expression,” he said.
If the party had its way, the Knesset would be a hall of computer servers handling discussions, filibusters and votes. No lobbyists. No horse-trading. The Pirates call it “liquid feedback” – transparent, grass-roots democracy. “The Internet is a powerful tool,” Kuzar said. “You can meet people one on one, or you can have hundreds of thousands talking to each other simultaneously about a certain issue and make decisions and follow up on them afterwards.”
So what is the Pirate Party's position on Iran's nuclear program?
Without missing a beat, Kuzar replied: “We will sit down and talk to anyone who has the Internet. There isn't a Pirate Party in Iran yet but once there is we'll contact them.”
And what about Israeli-Palestinian peace talks?
“Same thing – we have neighbors and we need to find creative solutions to our problems. Just being on the Internet will not suddenly bring peace. But if people fight over the internet rather than over tanks and buses and explosions, that's good enough for now.”
I was beginning to like these Pirates. Before leaving, I turned to Kuzar and asked how he thought the Pirates would fare on Election Day.
“We've got 300 registered members,” he said. “We should get at least that.”
Jim Maceda is an NBC News foreign correspondent based in London, currently on assignment in Tel Aviv.