CREDIT: Flickr user Carmel Shalev
Stav Shaffir is 28 years old. She has a net worth of $20,000. She lives in an apartment with three roommates.
Two years ago, she started Israel’s equivalent of the Occupy movement. Today, she’s representing Israel’s Labor Party in the country’s legislature. That makes her the youngest and poorest sitting Member of the Knesset (MK), and the youngest Israeli woman ever to hold such high office.
I met Shaffir while covering the J Street Conference, the “pro-peace, pro-Israel” lobby’s annual shindig. She had just finished speaking on a panel featuring younger people working to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict titled “New Voices, New Perspectives.” It was a good idea, though there weren’t a whole lot of new perspectives for the new voices to chat about given the subject matter.
Shaffir’s story, by contrast, feels genuinely new — and in many ways distinctively Millenial. Like most young Israelis, she did her mandatory military service before college, where she was in the first cohort of women officially trained by the IDF to be combat pilots. After finishing a scholarship for Israeli and Palestinian youth to study in London in 2009, she returned to Israel to work as a journalist and study for her Masters.
She stumbled upon the nascent protest movement almost by accident. “A friend brought me to meet a group that met through Facebook, who wanted to organize a protest about the housing crisis,” she told me. Israeli housing was, and still is, extremely expensive, sucking up huge percentages younger and poorer Israelis’ income. “We met about two weeks before the 14th of July [in 2011] — we planned a protest, we planned to come with tents” to show they had nowhere to live.
The protests, nicknamed J14 after the date they started, took the country by storm. “A lot of people showed up, which was not part of our plan,” she joked. “In the beginning, it started with a few hundred people,” but it quickly blew beyond that. At J14′s peak in September 2011, the movement organized 460,000 Israelis for a one-day march, about 6 percent of Israel’s population. It was the largest protest — by far — in Israel’s history.
Shaffir became something of a spokeswoman for the protesters. The movement’s demands had expanded to, in her words, “lack of equality, the privatization of our education system, and the destruction of our social services” — a broad-based call to reverse the steady dismantling of Israel’s European-style social welfare state and to reverse the nation’s trend towards skyrocketing inequality. It fell to Shaffir and several fellow early organizers to give voice to these demands.
Her ascent was not without controversy. J14 and its organizers were criticized, first and foremost, for ignoring the occupation. A Vice documentary about the movement, which interviewed Shaffir during a roof party at her shared apartment, opened with a much longer segment about a radical pro-Palestinian Israeli demonstrator angry with J14 for its non-stance on the conflict.
It’s not as though Shaffir herself was neutral. At her J Street plenary panel, she pulled no punches. “We don’t need to fall into the terminology of the right,” she said in a fiery dismissal of arguments for a two-state solution like the so-called “demographic threat” posed to Israel’s Jewish majority by high Palestinian birthrates. “We need peace because its the right thing to do.” The movement’s decision to sideline the occupation was tactical, an attempt to put up the biggest possible tent for Israelis attracted to J14′s central economic message.
Shaffir’s ultimate decision to run for elected office, announced in October of 2012, was similarly controversial. “It took us a very long time to move from the notion of a protest, a massive mobilizing that’s supposed to create that magic of a solution, to an understanding of power,” she told me. “We had a lot of conflict about that. Some people thought we should be completely apolitical. But the people that I speak for — at a certain point, it was realized that we need more power.” “This power,” Shaffir came to believe after about a year of demonstrations wrested only minor concessions from the Netanyahu administration, “rests in politics.”
She didn’t sound exactly thrilled about this. “Politics is not a nice place to be,” she said, but “I personally don’t understand how we’re going to change anything without being a part of this.”
The bruising primary campaign Shaffir went through may have something to do with her distaste for her new profession. As in American elections, money talks, particularly in primaries. Israeli politicians can take up to $10,000 from individual donors and contribute unlimited amounts of their own fortunes to their personal war chests. A relatively small number of large donors play a huge role in financing the major parties.
Shaffir had no personal fortune to speak of, and not much in the way of savings after a year and half of helping organize a movement with no formal source of revenue. She went into debt to finance her primary campaign.
“That was the biggest challenge,” she said. “I had months to do my campaign in Labor, with no idea what a campaign is supposed to be like…and no money.” She offhandedly mentioned that she had been dedicating “22 hours a day” to the protest movement.
“Wait, 22?” I blurted out. “Were you sleeping?”
“Two hours,” she said nonchalantly. “For a very long time.”
Money wasn’t Shaffir’s only problem. Her decision to run as for a seat in the Labor Party, the historic seat of Israel’s center-left, didn’t thrill everyone in her leftist base, even the part that was comfortable with electoral politics (there are further left parties, like Meretz, in the Knesset). There’s no doubt there was at least a change in Shaffir’s tone. The former anarchist who famously refused to sing the Israeli national anthem during the protests, on grounds that “Hatikvah” excluded non-Jewish Israelis, vehemently defended the Jewish Israeli national project during an Al Jazeera roundtable about a month before the primary.
She also faced a challenge from the right flank of the protest movement. Itzik Shmuli, who came up through a traditional path to political power (the national student union), had become the most prominent “pragmatist” in J14. A colorful profile of his relationship with Shaffir in Ha’aretz, Israel’s leading left-wing newspaper, billed the two as “arch-rivals.” The national anthem incident, according to Ha’aretz, became famous partly because Shmuli wielded it as a political cudgel in a campaign to marginalize Shaffir. Naturally, he ended up running against her in the primary.
In the end, they both won. Shaffir took the 8th spot in Labor’s parliamentary list while Shmuli took the 11th, placement high enough for both of them to take one of the 15 seats in the Knesset Labor won in January 2013.
So what has she done in the eight months since her election? Her legislative and parliamentary proposals have mirrored J14′s core interests: affordable housing, transparency, and figuring out ways to make the Knesset more responsive to the public. It’s not the stuff of national transformation yet, but it’s a start.
Shaffir’s also taken a high-profile stand on gender issues. In March, Shaffir and two other female MKs prayed at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, wearing tallit (traditional prayer shawls). They were attending a service held by Women of the Wall, an organization dedicated to breaking the stranglehold of the ultra-Orthodox’s over the holy site’s gender norms.
Shaffir and her fellow parliamentarians were initially barred from attending — according to the police, women wearing tallit were a “disturbance of public order” — but their legal status as legislators forced the police to let them pray. Despite torrents of abuse from ultra-Orthodox onlookers, the service was successfully conducted. It was, according to Ha’aretz, “the first time in many months” in which no women demanding equal treatment were arrested. By the summer, the government was constructing a special area for “egalitarian” (meaning non-Orthodox) men and women to pray at the wall.
Partly because religious conservatives have huge amounts of power over Israeli social policy, a state of affairs stemming back to a deal Israel’s founders made with the ultra-Orthodox minority, prayer is hardly the only place the Jewish state has gender problems. “I try not to let it bother me too much.” Shaffir, who doesn’t identify as religious, said.
“I do get the awkward looks when I’m in the finance committee. I don’t know if it’s my age, or my gender, or my hair” — not many Knesset members sport long red locks — “or its existence.”
“I don’t like the fact that, in 2013, less than a quarter of our parliament is women…women are not very welcome there,” she explained. “I’m spending a lot of time talking to younger women,” attempting “to give them the example that it’s possible, we can do it, that we can survive in that violent, masculine atmosphere.”
And what about the issues that so defined her career in activism: the unraveling of Israel’s social democratic contract and the inescapable conflict with the Palestinians?
“The government is heavily dependent on a bunch of settlers,” she sighed. “If we want something to happen, then we need to put pressure and put pressure now.” If the current talks fail, she worried, the peace camp would be blamed for the hawkish government’s failure. It’s the way it’s always been when talks break down.
At this point in our conversation, several people who I assume were J Street staff (we were talking in the conference’s impromptu supply room) walked in. Shaffir said hi and offered them chocolate. Without skipping a beat, she went back to the peace process, her remarks crescendoing with the sort of stump speech rhetoric that would have elicited a standing O at her panel the day before.
“This is the time for all the peace movements, for all the people who want social justice…to show the Prime Minister that if he wants our support — if he wants any support! — that [peace] is what the Israeli people want” from him, she said.
That, of course, is much easier said than done. I pressed Shaffir on how, exactly, the 8th member of the opposition planned to make the famously hawkish Netanyahu into a peacenik.
“Come on, you want to save some surprises,” she dodged through laughter. “But yeah, there are a lot of things.” Shaffir suggested using the Knesset as a bully pulpit for highlighting the extraordinary economic cost to ordinary Israelis of the the settlement project. She also plans to use parliamentary tools and public pressure to make the Israeli right explain just what “the plan” is if they don’t think a negotiated Palestinian state is worth pursuing. “If there’s going to be one state,” she means to ask, “will it be democratic?”
That response was a bit vaguer than I had thought the first time around (playing back the interview tape, I sheepishly listened to myself tell Shaffir “you actually answered the question, which is rare,” when I’m not at all sure that she did). Regardless, it seems clear that Shaffir’s vision of the future of Israeli politics is firmly rooted in her experience with the protest movement. The organizer’s faith in collective democratic action, in the idea that government can do great things if only the people choose to make it, is the beating heart of Shaffir’s worldview.
Keeping the trust of the activist left partners this approach depends on while continuing to rise inside the Labor Party’s ranks might be a bit of a tightrope walk for Shaffir. After her primary victory in November 2012, Dimi Reider, a writer for the left-wing Israeli magazine +972, sounded a bit of a sour note. “Just a few months ago, Shaffir was still the young woman with a placard and a bullhorn who caused a prominent right-wing MK to nearly implode in self-parody…Today, she seems to have ditched much of what made her new and appealing in a scramble for the old political center,” Reider lamented.
“Friends and supporters still believe in Shaffir’s commitment and principle and see all these as sacrifices necessary to get elected in a centrist party running against a right-wing party,” he continued, “but the temptation to compromise for power only becomes stronger as one rises.” Four months later, Reider offered “warm congratulations” to Shaffir on her ascendance to the Knesset.
Shaffir, for her part, hasn’t given up on the organized left. During her recent trip to the States, she spent time studying with Marshall Ganz, the legendary labor organizer and Harvard lecturer who helped put together the Obama campaign’s 2008 grassroots strategy.
“I think that the left in Israel doesn’t have much of an organizing tradition in recent decades. In elections, for the past two decades, we don’t even have a winning tradition,” she lamented. “A lot of the struggle within the left is over ‘who is more accurate’ and who is more just and who is more lefty — you know that” she said, aware of my own politics. “It’s an international disease.”
“The left in Israel has forgotten what it means to be in control, to rule, to make the decisions…the people who are not involved today, I believe, are people who are on our side, progressive people.”
Beyond the organizer’s fire, the leftist furor at Israel’s manifest inequalities, and the politician’s practiced evasions, there’s a core optimism about Israel’s future that permeates Shaffir’s political outlook. Recalling Israel’s first generation of socialist dreamers with fondness, she waxes poetic about reviving “the Zionist dream.”
“First of all, define our border, define our relationship with the new Palestinian country, define our relationship with the world, and then,” she breathes, Israelis will “finally have the ability to look inside and fix our broken society.”
You can’t say she’s not ambitious.