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Is Stav Shaffir, Israel’s Youngest Lawmaker, Ready for a Bigger Role?

Popular Appeal: Shaffir has succeeded in tying economic concerns to Israel’s policies in the occupied territories. Image by reuters / amir cohen

In mid-January, Stav Shaffir stood in front of the Knesset plenum, gripping the podium with one hand and pointing at the handful of lawmakers gathered before her with the other. “Friends, my friends on the right, your fear is evident,” she said, in a voice quivering with accusation. “You are simply afraid. You are afraid because in the last two years we uncovered your corruption. We uncovered how, behind your ideological positions, you took Israeli public funds, tax money that the public worked so hard for, and you transferred it to your friends.”

Shaffir’s speech made headlines in the Israeli press and was viewed countless times online in Israel and the United States. But it wasn’t the first time Shaffir had gone viral. As an organizer of the largest protest movement in Israel’s history in 2011, she brought cost-of-living issues to the forefront of Israeli political debate.

Now, four years later, as a national election scheduled for March draws near, the 29-year-old Knesset member has reached near idol status among liberal Israelis. The reason, on vivid display in her Knesset speech, is her seeming ability to tie the economic concerns that galvanized the mass protest movement to Israel’s policies in the occupied territories, which many Israelis otherwise strive to avoid.

In her speech, Shaffir described her crusade to reveal secret budget transfers that she contends benefit West Bank settlers at the expense of the poor on Israel’s periphery. The practice, she said, is an affront to Israel’s founding principles. “Don’t argue with us about Zionism,” she continued. “Because real Zionism, my friends, is to distribute the budget equally between all citizens. Real Zionism is to be concerned with the weakest members of society. Real Zionism is solidarity. Not only in war but in the day to day, to keep each other safe.”

Shaffir’s campaign for budgetary transparency is an esoteric one, particularly in a country where security concerns dominate headlines and dinner table conversation. Nonetheless, the Knesset’s youngest lawmaker has managed to spark a national discussion about budget priorities.

In the current Knesset, where she is a member of the opposition with limited power, Shaffir has earned a reputation as a whistleblower who draws the finance committee into lengthy, contentious debates over items that were at one time quickly rubber-stamped. Shaffir’s transparency campaign — which has been covered widely in the Israeli and international press — no doubt contributed to her second-place showing in the Labor Party primary in January. Should the Labor Party’s joint list with the dovish faction Hatnua win the chance to form a government in March, Shaffir will make her third transition, from a parliamentary opposition member to a lawmaker — and perhaps a cabinet member — with the power to set legislative priorities.

Shaffir says she is primed for the role. “I feel ready to be in a position where I can really implement my ideas and bring my plans forward, and change policy from within government,” she told me. “I feel ready for that.”

I met Shaffir on a Thursday morning in January at a cafe and bookstore called Tola’at Sfarim — which means “bookworm” — in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. The location felt apt; on the way over I had read an article comparing Shaffir to Yitzhak Rabin, another Labor politician who argued that Israel prioritized settlement funding to the detriment of the periphery communities in the North and South.

Inside the cafe, Nina Simone played on the sound system; a few Tel Aviv retirees dressed in black with angular plastic glasses read the morning newspaper. Shaffir arrived by bike around 9:15 a.m., her long black coat flapping behind her. She was wearing a burgundy sweater over a white business shirt; a pair of sunglasses was pushed over her hair. Tola’at Sfarim, she told me when we sat down, is one of the last remaining independent bookstores in Tel Aviv. “I always leave with books I don’t have time to read,” she said. It wasn’t long before a middle-aged woman walked by and gave Shaffir a salute, thanking her for her work in the Knesset.

Shaffir’s popularity on the street was mirrored in Israel’s English language press a few days later, with glowing profiles of the politician in Ha’aretz and the Times of Israel.

Avi Shilon, a dissenter from Team Stav, said he was castigated by liberal readers as a right winger when he wrote a recent Ha’aretz column questioning Shaffir’s solidarity with working class Israelis. “I have the feeling that almost everyone became some sort of admirer of Stav on the one hand,” he said. “If you are going to attack Stav it’s like you are doing it because you are right wing.”

Shaffir’s “Cinderella story,” as her campaign manager, Maya Mark, calls her trajectory from activist to lawmaker, is by now Israeli lore. Shaffir was born in Netanya, on Israel’s northern coastal plain. Her parents — she has Polish, Lithuanian, Romanian and Iraqi heritage — are both accountants. Her sister, 26, is autistic and lives with her parents, and her brother, 18, is in a pre-military volunteer program.

Shaffir said that her political philosophy — what she describes as an “ideology that puts responsibility and taking care of others and social responsibility at the center” — was inculcated by her parents. “They are still really the most honest and decent people that I know,” she said. “They gave me the example that you have to be fair with other people and help people in need and always be there for other people.”

She joined a youth movement — called Ha’noar Ha’oved Vehalomed, The Federation of Working and Studying Youth — which further honed her sense of Israel as a society where “people are not left alone.”

High school bored Shaffir, and she often skipped class to attend university lectures in philosophy or to spend time with other members of the youth movement. She also traveled. “I wanted to know every mountain and every river in this country. I was really obsessed,” she said. “My parents gave me that idea. You shouldn’t travel abroad before you know the entire country you live in.”

Shaffir’s childhood dream was to become a pilot or an astronaut, and she even broke her arm twice, she said, by jumping off chairs and tables, trying to fly. “I remember that feeling very well,” she told me. “I didn’t understand why we can’t fly.”

After high school graduation she spent a year volunteering in Tiberias and then enrolled in the Israeli Air Force flight academy. (Women have been serving in the Israeli Air Force, including in some combat roles, since the early 2000s.) Like the majority of her peers in the ultra-competitive program, Shaffir was ultimately transferred to another unit. “Of course it was a disappointment,” she said. “I was very thankful for the opportunity.”

Shaffir’s new charge was to report for the Israel Defense Forces magazine BaMahane, a training ground for many Israeli journalists and politicians. There she met Yonatan Levi, the friend who would later spark her involvement in the social protest movement. Levi, also 29, remembers Shaffir as a restless young reporter. “She was always off somewhere, having an adventure,” he said. “She came to our offices once a week with mud on her clothes and an amazing story to tell.”

After her army service, Shaffir attended the Olive Tree Scholarship Programme for future Israeli and Palestinian leaders, at City University London. It was here that she got her first taste of parliamentary politics as an intern in the British Parliament. When she returned to Israel, she studied music. Born with perfect pitch, she had begun playing music at the age of 4; she now plays piano, drums, guitar and oud. She enrolled in a master’s degree program in philosophy at Tel Aviv University, and later began working as a freelance journalist for Israeli and international outlets.

In 2011, Shaffir was rooming with Levi in an apartment in South Tel Aviv’s dilapidated but gentrifying Florentin neighborhood and barely making ends meet. The apartment was a windowless unit with a crumbling concrete staircase. “We had pigeons and rats and a very, very bad landlord,” Levi said. One day in July, Levi, who was a housing activist in Tel Aviv, saw a Facebook listing for an affordable housing protest. He made contact with the organizer, a Tel Aviv activist named Daphni Leef, who had recently received a notice to vacate her apartment and was scrambling to find an inexpensive place. Leef invited Levi to a planning meeting at her apartment, and Levi brought Shaffir, who nearly couldn’t make it because of her busy schedule.

At the meeting, Levi and Shaffir recognized no one. “When you are in the activist scene in Tel Aviv, you know everyone to the degree that you are sick of seeing people over and over again,” Levi said. “To know nobody out of nine or 10 people, that is a good sign. It means that the political urge has infected sectors of the population that are not classically political.”

The group decided to set up a tent protest in Habima Square, a small pavilion in central Tel Aviv. “I remember we walked home and I told Stav this is going to be a great success if we bring 200 or 300 people,” Levi said. Less than two weeks later, the protest — which by that time had moved to nearby Rothschild Boulevard, a symbol of affluent, out-of-touch Israel — had mushroomed into the thousands. Tent camps started springing up all over Israel. Inspired by the Arab Spring protests of the previous year, the demonstrations’ rationale expanded from housing to include demands for fair taxation, transportation and schooling, eventually galvanizing a half-million people. Somehow, the high price of cottage cheese, a living staple for many middle-class Israelis, became the movement’s symbolic cause.

Shaffir described the protests as a kind of release valve for a society that had too long bottled up its complaints about day-to-day hardship, thinking it didn’t have the right to protest given Israel’s security concerns. “In many ways it was a protest about the Israeli story,” she said. “We were told a story about a country where people are responsible for each other.”

But looking back, some observers say that despite its national scope, the protests failed to account for Israelis on the margin. “From the beginning there was a feeling that this was a protest of a somewhat privileged group,” said Ishak Saporta, a professor of business ethics at Tel Aviv University and a longtime Israeli activist. “They forgot the real problem of Israel, of the poverty of Bedouins in the Negev and the Arabs in the Galilee and the Jews in development towns everywhere, and the poor neighborhoods of Tel Aviv.”

In an effort to avoid splitting the broad movement that had come together, the protest leadership also avoided taking on the most fundamental matter facing Israel today: the settlement project and the fate of the occupied Palestinian territories.

As the protests grew, Shaffir took on a central organizing role. Like during her military service at BaMahane, she decamped from Rothschild to meet with protesters around the country, becoming a kind of ambassador from Tel Aviv’s social justice headquarters. “I remember her with her earphone connected to her cell phone, walking back and forth and organizing things, sending sandwiches to the tent city in Tsfat or being the peace-seeking mediator between the two tent cities in Jerusalem that didn’t stop fighting,” Levi said. “She was this voice of reason and action.”

Shaffir said that it wasn’t at all obvious to her that the protests would end in her election to the Knesset. She was only 9 when Rabin was murdered — “Just here,” she gestured toward Rabin Square — and the incident and political corruption that followed sparked her long antipathy to politics. “It was a political trauma for my generation,” she said. Like many of the demonstrators, she held a deep suspicion toward candidates who engaged in politicking on Rothschild Boulevard.

Yet as the weeks carried on, Shaffir began to wonder if her aversion to politics was misplaced. Her decision to run for office came the night of her second arrest, after the police became more aggressive as the protests died down.

“I was sitting in the police station,” she recalled. “On my right was a friend who was a social worker who was arrested, and on the other side was a friend who was just released from the Air Force. I was sitting there with the best people in the country, people who are dedicating their lives for this society.

“We managed to create the biggest movement in Israel’s history for social justice, something that never happened here before, and we managed to make every politician speak the language of the protest and make every news anchor speak the language of the protest. We changed society. But we are stuck.”

That’s when she knew: “It can’t be only in the street. We have to be everywhere.”

In 2012, the Labor Party recruited Shaffir for its Knesset list. She came in ninth place in the party primary, with the slogan, “It’s Our Time.”

Today, Shaffir’s political career is the most tangible outcome of the 2011 tent protests. The movement counts just a single legislative achievement: a 2012 law that lowered the age of public kindergarten admission by one year. Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party, which won 19 seats in the 2012 election in a post-protest bid for power, is widely seen as having failed to deliver on the promise of social change. Itzik Shmuli, another protest-leader-turned-Labor Knesset member, has received a fraction of Shaffir’s media attention. (Before he entered the race, Shmuli’s public image was tarnished somewhat when his student union received a donation from a conglomerate whose tycoon he had railed against.)

Today, activism, particularly on housing issues, continues in Tel Aviv, but nowhere near the 2011 levels. “The idea is still here, and for the people who took part in it, it is part of their experience, and you can’t take someone’s experience away from them,” said Leef, one of the original protest organizers.

Since the 2011 demonstrations, Leef has taken a decidedly different path in pursuit of the cause she once shared with Shaffir. While Leef wouldn’t rule out a political career today, she felt that she could not run for Knesset fresh off the protests. “I felt a responsibility not to make any use of it for my personal agenda,” she said. She sees the value in Shaffir’s transparency campaign, but doesn’t see it as an outgrowth of the demonstrations. “The minute she went into the Knesset, I looked at her work as not an extension of the movement,” she said.

In the Knesset, Shaffir’s domain is the finance committee where she is an alternate member. For her first few months in the committee, Shaffir deliberately kept mum as she learned the nuts and bolts of the Israeli budget. She gave herself a crash course in Israeli finance law, often working through the night and resting just a few hours. “I see sleep as a waste of time,” she told me.

After months of observing the committee, Shaffir realized that the panel was transferring a large portion of the national budget away from its originally intended use. After the full Knesset approved a budget, government ministries dictated changes to the national budget through transfer requests made with the treasury. The treasury would then pass these requests on to the finance committee, which would quickly approve them with scant debate and little public disclosure.

Shaffir set her own sights in particular on the settlement division of the World Zionist Organization, whose budget increased eightfold last year, according to an Associated Press report. “I discovered the system by which politicians and Knesset members are using the national budget for their own political interests, and it is all made around the table in the finance committee,” Shaffir said. “I discovered a simple principle: Where there is no transparency there is the potential for corruption.”

Part of the reason that these transfers occurred, Shaffir found, was that committee members had little or no time to review the transfer requests, which were often made with vague or opaque language. So, Shaffir assembled a team of 120 volunteers and legal advisers to help her look into the issue.

T hrough her efforts, the finance ministry agreed to publish the transfers online before meetings. Shaffir also took her campaign to the Israeli high court, filing a complaint that claimed that the finance ministry and finance committee bypassed the Knesset by giving the green light to spending not included in the original budget. Rather than act on the complaint, the high court told Shaffir to negotiate with the finance committee in order to come up with a new, more transparent system to deal with the budgetary transfers.

In the meantime, Shaffir has doubled down on her efforts to push back against what she sees as settler favors. Last December she succeeded in getting the attorney general to freeze a budget transfer of $3.3 million for a tourist center in a settlement in the Northern West Bank on the grounds that it was a political maneuver during election season. The finance committee’s meeting on this issue was so contentious that the committee’s chairman, Nissan Slomiansky of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, had Shaffir forcibly removed from the room, saying she had “gone totally mad.”

In Shaffir’s view, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is inextricably linked to creating a better life for the average Israeli. “It’s in Israel’s interest to reach an agreement with the Palestinians and separate from the Palestinians into two national states,” she said. “What will happen if we don’t reach an agreement in the next few years is that we will confront the entire international community, economic sanctions and a separation from the Western community.”

But Saporta said he wasn’t sure how budget transparency would lead to that outcome. “I’m not saying it’s not important at all,” he said. “But if you ask me if it will amount to a radical change in policy? No. Unless what can happen is that the citizens will start to fight about the issues from below because they are catalyzed by transparency, I don’t know if it will work.”

In addition to her finance committee work, Shaffir has focused on rent stabilization, a pet issue from her days with the social protest movement. She partnered with Moshe Gafni, a Knesset member with the ultra-Orthodox Degel HaTorah party, to write legislation that would put a 2% cap on rent hikes annually. That a leader in Degel HaTorah — which doesn’t allow women on its Knesset list — would collaborate with a young secular woman is a paradox, said Gafni’s aide, Yerach Tucker. “It’s weird,” he said. “He is 60 years old, she is maybe 30. He is an ultra-Orthodox person, she is not at all.” But for all that, he said, “They are two kinds of people that worked together.”

When Shaffir won second place in the Labor primary, Gafni even called to congratulate her. Shaffir celebrated at a party in Tel Aviv where supporters wore red wigs and red hats to mimic her red hair.

Shilon, the skeptical Haaretz columnist, who is also an historian, argued that Shaffir’s popularity among the Tel Aviv public is more broad than it is deep. They vote for her, he argued, mainly to ease their conscience about Israeli social ills.

“Israeli culture is stuck in stagnation, and into this vacuum Stav Shaffir perfectly fit,” Shilon said. He warned against viewing Shaffir as a politician outside of politics, especially when she is so new to the Knesset. “We must see her like a politician and she wants us to see her like something new, something that came from the sky to save Israel,” he said. “She is going to be exactly the same kind of old politician in Israel who wants to talk about the poor.”

Now that the primary is over, Shaffir is spending her days meeting with young Israelis to talk with them about joining politics. She also recently took off a day to celebrate her one-year anniversary with her boyfriend, Tal Angert, another activist.

In an instance of true Shaffir mania, a photo she posted of the pair on Facebook received thousands of “likes” and was quickly reprinted by Ynet, the website of Israel’s largest newspaper, Yediot Aharonot.

Living on her own in a Tel Aviv apartment, Shaffir said that she sees herself in the Knesset long term, but also hopes to one day find peace and quiet in a home in the Negev or the Galilee.

In March, Shaffir’s political reality could change entirely if she moves from Knesset opposition member to government coalition partner. “It is a totally different world,” said Yossi Dahan, a professor and head of human rights programming at the College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan. “When you have the coalition you have to behave according to the rules of the coalition. You cannot just go against the collective decision of the coalition. So we will have to wait and see, although from first impression she looks like a very independent parliamentarian.”

Reach Naomi Zeveloff at [email protected] or on Twitter @NaomiZeveloff


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