The social protests that began in Tel Aviv last July and grew into a national movement embraced by hundreds of thousands of Israelis has focused on such issues as housing, education, health care and the shrinking middle class.
But Stav Shaffir, one of 12 young adults who launched the movement, told The Jewish Week last week that something else was on her mind, as well.
“I thought of my grandparents and their courage on an almost daily basis” during the protests, said Shaffir, who spent nearly two weeks in the States last month to seek support from American Jews.
Her grandparents came to Israel from Poland, Lithuania and Iraq to pursue the Zionist dream, she continued, and it’s now that very dream — the job of “building a real home” for the Jewish people — that her movement is seeking to reclaim. “We think the Zionist dream is a much bigger one than how the people on the extreme right picture it,” Shaffir said, adding that her movement could be called “Occupy Zionism.”
Shaffir made her comments at the New York offices of the New Israel Fund, where she and Yonatan Levi, a co-founder of the protests, held a March 30 news conference to discuss what their movement has achieved so far and what it plans for the future.
The movement began after Dafni Leef, a young video producer who had just lost her apartment due to rent increases, couldn’t find a new, affordable home and pitched a tent on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. Almost facetiously, Leef asked her Facebook friends to join her, and those who responded included Shaffir and Levi, both 27 and friends since they met in the army.
The protest grew to include hundreds and, then, thousands of others, and tent camps began sprouting up all over Israel, the two recalled. Even more amazing to the movement’s organizers, Shaffir said, is how the protesters cut across all political, ethnic and religious lines in Israel, drawing those from the left and those from the right, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, the secular and the fervently Orthodox, Jewish citizens and Arab citizens.
“Within a few days, we could say this wasn’t just a protest over housing,” but over the entire spectrum of social issues, including the fraying of Israel’s safety net, Levi said.
One criticism of the movement from the left is that organizers haven’t focused on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and how it siphons money away from social services within the Green Lines. But Shaffir said the movement has adopted the position that physical security and social security are, indeed, linked.
The nation’s physical borders “are only one part of our security,” she said. “Our education and health care are another part of our security, and they’re just as important.” As for the occupation, she said, “We think we have to focus on the country’s internal issues first,” addressing the most basic subjects, “and then people will take that further.”
Shaffir and Levi met last week with organizers of Occupy Wall Street, a movement with which the Israeli protests have been compared. But Shaffir believes that, unlike OWS, the Israeli movement is mainstream, generating a national discourse that has affected every home in Israel.
“No politician in Israel can give a speech today without mentioning the words ‘social justice,’” said Shaffir, who counts that as one of the movement’s achievements. Another is the passage of a law providing free education to the country’s children beginning at age 3.
Looking toward the future, the movement’s leaders have launched a formal organization, the Israeli Social Movement, to create something more sustained. They don’t plan to become a party or endorse any of the country’s current factions, Shaffir said, but they’ve encouraged other young adults to join a party and exercise their influence. They’ve developed a training institute, the Idea Lab, to identify and nurture other potential leaders, who, in turn, will train still others. And they’re already planning the next round of protests as prices continue to skyrocket.
“We’re in a war,” said Shaffir, who has become the face and voice of the movement for many Israelis. “It may sound crazy, but we feel we have only a few years before we lose our country.”