On Israel's left, a young firebrand is building her base

Stav Shaffir's in-your-face, in-the-weeds approach to governing, and her commitment to transparency and tackling corruption, is challenging a political system accustomed to backroom deals and minimal oversight.

Courtesy of Nir Arieli
Stav Shaffir became Israel’s youngest woman lawmaker when she was elected in 2013 at the age of 27. A member of the center-left Labor Party, she is challenging a political system accustomed to backroom deals and minimal oversight.

Stav Shaffir slides into a high-backed black leather chair at the Knesset Transparency Committee, a parliamentary panel she created and helms, and convenes a session on public housing – or rather Israel’s chronic shortage of it.

Every seat in the wood-paneled room is taken, so attendees, many of them housing activists, crowd together in the back. But Hagai Reznik, the director of the Housing Ministry, is running late.

Ms. Shaffir, Israel’s youngest-ever woman lawmaker when she was elected in 2013 at the age of 27, looks out at the room, her trademark shock of red hair spilling over a black blazer, and announces that there is too much ground to cover to wait for the director. She begins questioning Mr. Reznik’s deputies and taking testimony from people who have waited years for public housing.

When Reznik finally does arrive, the room has become thick with tension. He raises his voice when fielding questions, including from a woman who holds up a baby girl whose head is bald from chemotherapy treatments. The mother is among those who has been asking for public housing.

“You don’t have to shout,” Shaffir admonishes the ministry director, noting that his office does not respond to 80 percent of requests for public housing. “But I am asking: What part of your budget is designated for [staff] to respond to people’s requests?”

It’s with this in-your-face, in-the-weeds approach to governing, and a commitment to transparency and tackling corruption, that Shaffir, a member of the center-left Labor party, has planted her flag, challenging a political system accustomed to backroom deals and minimal oversight.

It is a position her supporters hail as principled and critical in Israeli politics today, its urgency underlined as the country watches the government of Benjamin Netanyahu lurch between corruption scandals and attempts even to change laws to protect the prime minister himself from prosecution.

This week she has been one of the leading voices in the Knesset calling on people to act against the controversial bill. A mass anti-corruption rally is scheduled for Saturday night in Tel Aviv.

Heidi Levine/Sipa Press/Newscom
Stav Shaffir, at the time No. 4 on the Zionist Union's election list, during a campaign visit in Ashdod, Israel, on March 13, 2015. Her experience as a social reform protest leader led her to politics.

“The last month breaks all the records of shame. Instead of legislating for the benefit of the middle class and for the elderly and disabled, the government legislates against the law enforcement authorities,” Shaffir posted on Facebook. “Those who prefer to take care of their friends instead of being concerned for our citizens should not be allowed to rule here for even one day longer. We have to stop them.”

Shaffir’s supporters see her mission as one they hope will catapult her to high places, noting her youthful following and record of being able to get people to mobilize.

Not everyone likes it, especially not her right-wing colleagues across the aisle. They have dismissed her as a “little girl” when she challenges them in powerful forums like the Knesset Finance Committee, and have bristled when she has taken to the Knesset floor, as she did in an impromptu speech in 2015 over payouts to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, admonishing them that they don’t have a monopoly on Zionism.

“Don’t preach to us about Zionism, because real Zionism means dividing the budget equally among all the citizens of the country,” she said in the speech, which went viral on Israeli social media. “Real Zionism is taking care of the weak. Real Zionism is solidarity, not only in battle but in everyday life.”

Shaffir rose to national prominence six years ago as an organizer and spokesperson of social justice protests that brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the streets to publicly demand what they had agonized about in private for so long – the crushingly high cost of living.

Today, four years after entering Israel’s parliament, she is driven to find out where the money in Israel’s budget is actually spent. She is credited with helping pull back the veil on government corruption and keeping social justice issues – specifically the widening gap between Israel’s haves and have-nots – on the national agenda.

'A real authentic voice'

In doing so she remains the most high-profile voice of young left-leaning Israelis who are struggling to afford a middle-class existence and are hungry for a peaceful way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict they were born into.

Shaffir acknowledges that Israel faces “major” security challenges, but invokes what she says is the Zionist movement’s “courage to make the impossible happen.”

“Having security means building more trust with our neighbors, and defining our borders,” she says in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “But the current message from our government is that nothing will change.”

Her left-leaning constituents are young people who are tired of being called traitors by the ruling right-wing establishment, who are fed up with what they see as endemic government corruption, and who see in Shaffir someone who was bold enough to enter the political fray to fight back, says Liat Schlesinger, executive director of the Israeli think tank Molad.

“She is a real authentic voice [that] brings with it energy, which is something that is very important in politics. I think people see – through Stav – an approach that says we need to be inside the political system, which means going out on that playing field every day,” Ms. Schlesinger says.

Shaffir spends long and densely packed days on that playing field. On days that parliament is in session, she rises at dawn in the apartment she rents in Tel Aviv and drives up the steep traffic-clogged highway to Jerusalem for hearings, meetings with her Zionist Union faction, and plenary sessions that often run past midnight. Several nights a week she crisscrosses the country to speak to small groups at people’s homes. She talks to them about hope, about reclaiming the country, about joining her in politics.

“We don’t use our power enough. We barely use it at all,” she tells a rooftop crammed with people at the home of a supporter in Tel Aviv at a recent such parlor meeting. “We fought so hard for this country. How did we let things get to the point where we have such vast gaps? I want to fix that.”

An aversion to politics

Shaffir, who grew up wanting to be either an astronaut, a musician, or a pilot (she was accepted into the Air Force’s prestigious pilot training course), worked for social causes and in journalism and had no intention of ever entering politics.

“I thought politics was too corrupt, and I did not trust politicians,” she tells the Monitor. “I had a very hard time even voting. I voted, but I did not perceive my vote as something meaningful.”

But her leadership in the social protest movement changed her life course.

She realized that if she wanted to effect change it would need to be from the inside. She told those gathered on the Tel Aviv rooftop: “I wanted to know where all the money goes when they [the government] say there is no money.”

She explained to them how she exposed how tax money was surreptitiously used for Jewish settlements in the West Bank by channeling millions of shekels through a system called budgetary transfers.

Granted, it’s not a sexy topic, but she helped make it one. She took to Facebook, as she often does to get the word out, to recruit volunteers to investigate where the money was going and then report back to the public on what they found out. She even took the Finance Committee to the Supreme Court, which ruled it had to find a new more transparent way to operate.

Her two-room Knesset office is crammed with young volunteer interns, most of them law students or social work students. They pore over files, putting together spreadsheets and data of government ministries.

Link to peace process

Shaffir says she sees the fight for social justice and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as linked. For her own undergraduate degree, Shaffir studied through a special program at City University of London that brought together Israeli and Palestinian students to study and dialogue together.

Among her take-aways, she says, was this: “Regardless of who is on the other side, it is not for us to rate them as a nice enemy or a bad enemy;” you have to find a way to build trust and work together.

Two states for two peoples is the only way forward for both sides, she says.

“We need to collaborate and get the message across: the role of leadership is to lead people forward to give people hope, and encourage them that this can work,” Shaffir says.

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