Stav Shaffir, who will turn 30 this month, is the youngest-ever female member of the Knesset, first elected two years ago on the Labor Party slate and re-elected in March. She was one of the leaders of the social justice protest in Tel Aviv that attracted huge crowds, many sleeping in tents, during the summer of 2011. Her youth, outgoing personality and eloquence made her a natural to be the group’s spokesperson, which in turn attracted the Labor Party to recruit her. During her first term in the Knesset, Shaffir focused on affordable housing, especially for young people, and other issues related to social justice, from gender equality to Women of the Wall. She made headlines for assuring that Knesset budget allocations are made transparent. Our interview took place at The Jewish Week offices shortly after the March elections.
Q: How do you explain your mercurial rise to prominence in Israeli politics?
A: Most Israelis prefer strong economic solidarity, and my generation gave society a wake-up call [with the 2011 social protest, the largest protest in Israel’s history]. Many in my generation are third-generation Israelis, coming from so many different backgrounds. We all served in the military but our government was not really seeing us, not looking at our future. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s attitude was “be thankful you’re alive, stop complaining.” We understand the danger of Iran and terror groups, but we are tired of the status quo.
What do you consider to be Israel’s most pressing problem?
Leadership. Ours is a diverse society, a delicate balance with 20 percent of the population Arab, a million charedi Jews, plus so many immigrants, etc. For all of us to be one society is the Zionist mission. The right-wing narrative has been tried and it doesn’t work. I see a change in young people in how they feel about Israel. Support [for the government] used to be automatic, but we need to end the corruption and change the system. The Arab peace initiative [proposed in 2002 and calling for a comprehensive agreement that would end the Arab-Israeli conflict with the return to the 1967 borders] has been ignored. Younger Israelis are tired of living with a sense of fear. We need both courage and pragmatism to fulfill the Zionist dream. The longer we wait to act [toward peace], the worse it will be. We can’t afford to maintain the status quo.
How do you view Israel’s relations with the U.S and with American Jews?
This is a critical time for us. U.S. support for Israel has always been bipartisan, but Netanyahu’s actions [in confronting President Obama publicly on Iran, etc.] have forced American Jews to choose [between support for the president or for Israel]. The path to a successful deal with Iran — one that puts our security first — is to get closer to our friends, not through conflict with them.
What has your Knesset experience been like?
I became a member of the Knesset finance committee at 27. At first I was a quiet observer and saw that after the budget was passed, the committee would sit and quietly change the direction of the funding. Some funds went to the settlements and to other right-wing causes. At night I studied the allocations carefully and saw what was happening. I was advised to keep quiet but I found that funds meant for society’s weaker elements were being diverted as part of a crony system. This inequality is dangerous in an already divided society.
So you took your findings to the Supreme Court?
Yes, and the outcome is that budget transfers must now be shown online so the public can follow the flow of allocations.
Do you plan to make politics your career?
I believe that politics should help make dreams come true. Younger people are becoming more distant from politics, they have lost faith in their leaders. I saw from our protest movement that I couldn’t afford the luxury of not being involved in politics. And I’ve discovered that the system is more corrupt than I thought. But you can change the system, make it transparent. It’s against our history and legacy to remain silent. We can make a difference. That’s the message for young people, to give them hope in the future..