Knessets youngest member brings her vigor to Bay Area

Three years ago, at age 27, Stav Shaffir was elected as the youngest female parliamentarian in the history of the Knesset.

And what if you had told her 12 months earlier that she’d soon be a candidate on the 2013 Labor Party ticket?

Stav Shaffir photo/wikipedia

“I would have said that you’re probably crazy because politics is just not for [the younger generation],” Shaffir said last week during a speaking engagement at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette.

Oh, really? Since being courted by the Labor Party to run for office, the unofficial leader of the 2011 Israeli social justice protests has gone from spokesperson for a movement to “near idol status among liberal Israelis,” in the words of the Forward.

In turn, she now occasionally gives speeches in the United States articulating the positions of the mainstream Israeli left. She has spoken at events such as the J Street national conference in Washington, D.C. and the Union for Reform Judaism biennial in Orlando, Florida.

A West Coast speaking tour sponsored by J Street brought the now 30-year-old Shaffir to the Bay Area this month. Approximately 150 people attended the talk at Temple Isaiah on April 14. She also spoke at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto and at a private event in San Francisco.

Though Shaffir has earned a reputation as a progressive firebrand, she devoted the bulk of her Isaiah talk to recounting her much-ballyhooed fight against what she dubbed the Israeli government’s “secret budget.”

Shaffir said that after she joined the Knesset finance committee, she began noticing that the committee often approved budget changes that altered the full Knesset’s already passed budget.

Shaffir talked about the drama of her campaign, saying veteran politicians and journalists warned her to stay away from investigating committee practices. It’s “not good for you politically,” they said. “Don’t touch that.”

But Shaffir persevered in her call for transparency and her battle against political corruption.

“I believe budget books are the most interesting books that people can read,” Shaffir told the audience, admonishing them not to laugh. “Really. Open the budget book. It’s interesting!”

Shaffir moved on to analyzing the Israeli political scene.

“Israel has a habit of love affairs with the center party,” she said, referencing parties such as Yesh Atid and Kulanu, which attempt to strike a middle ground between center-left Labor and center-right Likud. “The reason centrist parties are attractive is because they present a new kind of politics every time.”

Shaffir even mocked Israeli voters’ desire to “choose the new [parties] no matter who they are or what the party would do.”

That being said, she had already described her own run for the Knesset as being primarily about the distinctly non-ideological goal of challenging a political system that “serves the … narrow interest of those who sit there, and not of the broad society.”

Though still too young to be seriously considered for party leadership, Shaffir already sits third on Labor’s list, after current leader Isaac Herzog and his predecessor, Shelly Yachimovich.

In an interview with J. after her talk, Shaffir didn’t shy away from criticizing her party.

“We have to talk much more clearly about security in the progressive camp,” she said, calling the emphasis on economic issues during the last campaign a “leadership failure.” Shaffir did add that Herzog “is more and more understanding” that the Israeli left must articulate an affirmative message on national security.

In front of the audience, Shaffir talked about the Labor Party’s need to recruit young supporters, expand the membership base that chooses party candidates and make the party’s message of center-left Zionism relevant again.

“Sometimes we’re perceived as old, dusty, not updated,” Shaffir said. Israel’s Labor Party has not followed the path of socialist parties in other Western nations that began rebranding themselves in the 1990s, she added.

All of that aside, Shaffir has earned her role as the Israeli icon of the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” camp, a stance promoted by J Street. In the last year, two clips of Shaffir speeches — taking on the right-wing policies of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government — have gone viral online.

“True Zionism is to be concerned for the weak,” Shaffir said in one video. “True Zionism is solidarity not only in war, but in the day to day.”

In the other video, a fiery Shaffir verbally spars with right-wing members of the Knesset.

“How much can you guys talk of ‘Greater Israel’ streaming more people into the settlements? Who’s preventing you from annexing the territories? Are we preventing you?” Shaffir shouts. “You’re not doing it because you know that it’s a mistake.”

Shaffir embodies much of what progressive American Jews love about Israel. Her slight physical presence is belied by a powerful stage presence and a mass of bright orange hair. In clear but accented English, she talks about the urgency of bringing compassionate Zionism back to Israeli politics, decrying Palestinian terrorism in the same breath that she calls for taking swift action toward a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Her passion was evident at Isaiah, where she declared the pressing need for a two-state solution by saying, “Controlling millions of people in the West Bank is not us.”

She voiced concern that young Jews in the United States are faced with a distasteful choice between supporting Netanyahu’s government or aligning themselves with anti-Israel groups. Many, she added, simply choose to disengage.

“These people in universities that don’t find a way to connect with Israel — in 15 years they will be in politics, they will be in business, they will be the people who are making decisions,” Shaffir said. “If they will be disconnected from Israel and won’t secure our interests … that would be a disaster.”

Despite what she described as an uphill battle for progressive values within Israel, Shaffir said she derived hope from leading the huge 2011 social justice protests over inequality and the cost of living. At that time, hundreds of thousands of Israelis marched in the streets of Tel Aviv.

“We had no idea that the social justice protest movement would attract so many people to the streets,” she said. “The most Zionist thing is to dream big and make miracles happen.”

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a reporter at the Forward. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.