The future of the social justice movement that swept Israel last summer and fall may rest in the hands of the young woman with the red-tinted hair tucked in the corner of a cramped, noisy café in the old city of Jaffa.
Stav Shaffir looks like a graduate student from anywhere, her iPhone within easy and constant reach. She’s only 26. But ever since she and a few other activists decided to pitch tents on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv last July to protest the cost of housing — spawning a movement that at one point drew hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the streets — Shaffir has become one of the most intriguing young leaders in Israel today.
She is articulate, charming, thoughtful, and sometimes angry. On January 7, she was arrested with 22 others who clashed with police as they demonstrated against the planned removal of another tent city, this one in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood, a poorer cousin to the fancy street in the city center whose name has become synonymous with mild-mannered, middle class protest.
I met with her a few weeks earlier, in the part of Old Jaffa where polished, newly renovated buildings bump up against this historic city’s messier past, an apt metaphor for the clash she has helped create. She lives around the corner — unless the landlord raises the rent again, a common occurrence in this “start-up nation” and part of what galvanized the protests.
“One of the things we did in the very beginning was to say, after three days, this was not just about housing,” she recalled. “Housing is a symbol. It’s about education, it’s about health. It’s about all those things that we saw as very basic services and ideas in our community, and all the things we were educated to believe in.
“We’re also educated to believe that if we work hard, we’ll be fine. But then we work and work, and we work all the time. We work more than many other places, and we’re not fine. Something’s wrong.”
In railing against a society where income inequality is growing and where the middle class feels squeezed and uncertain, Shaffir does no more than join a global chorus of the disaffected. What I found refreshing about her is that she doesn’t stop there.
“I think many of the revolutions in history, and some of the protests today, they take the protest only to the place of saying what’s not good, what’s not right. Because it’s easier to be against. But here we just don’t have the time. We don’t have the time to continue for years to be against. We really have to develop that alternative, to develop what we are for, what we want.”
Shaffir says that she wants to see the social justice movement in Israel concentrate first on affordable housing, then on reducing unemployment, all the while building alliances with Israeli Arabs and others who struggle at the economic and political margins. While the rhetoric may sound like Occupy, the reception in Israel is more Acceptance. A few months after the tents went up in Tel Aviv, Shaffir and the other 20-something organizer, Daphne Leef, met with Israeli President Shimon Peres, who praised their activism.
In fact, a new poll showed that 45% of the Israeli public says that they have changed their consumption habits because of the social justice protests. While negotiations over reforming government fiscal policy have stalled in the Knesset, there’s a sense that the movement’s underlying message is catching up with ordinary people.
This doesn’t surprise Shaffir at all. “The world over, politics is going to be very different. I mean, these are the last years of politics the way we know it,” she predicted, with the kind of certainty young, successful activists can boast without yet having to stand the scrutiny of time.
“We changed a lot in the way we think,” she said. “We don’t live very well with questions anymore. The idea of Google, it’s more than just a brand. It’s the idea that there are answers to everything.”
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and it has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.