January 17, 2019

Stav Shaffir: Changing Israel to court the Diaspora

Elected to the Knesset in 2013 at the age of 27, Zionist Union MK Stav Shaffir is the youngest member of Israel’s parliament and certainly one of its most vocal. Disliked by the right but a favorite of the Barack Obama administration (Vice President Joe Biden once famously wished her views “once again become the majority opinion in the Knesset”), she has become an outspoken critic of issues ranging from Jerusalem’s settlement policy to the religious status quo and economic inequality, in the process making a name for herself as a firebrand who spares no sacred cows.

A former journalist, Shaffir came to national prominence as one of the leaders of Israel’s nationwide 2011 “cottage cheese” socio-economic protests; she has made social justice a primary focus of her legislative agenda and believes that if she can just change Israel, she will revolutionize relations with the Diaspora, as well.

Shaffir spoke this week with the Jewish Journal about being a woman in politics, Women of the Wall and why she believes the national camp is driving young American Jews away from Israel.

Jewish Journal: Can you tell us what it is like to be a woman and a millennial in the Knesset?

Stav Shaffir: It’s wonderful to be a young woman in politics. Young people in general, and women, have always been looked at with a lot of suspicion — the system is not used to having young people and women. Although this year is supposed to be a record with a quarter of the Knesset [being] women, with women in dominant positions on both the right and the left, I wouldn’t call it one because I would expect the parliament today to be half and half, naturally, representative of demographics. The fact is that parties today need to reserve spots on party lists for women; it doesn’t happen in a natural process that they become candidates and are voted for in the same way as men.

Personally, I always knew I needed to work much harder than many other people. I’ve put in a lot of time on every small detail for every committee. If I make a mistake, people will [say] these young people shouldn’t be here and don’t know what they are talking about.

JJ: Have you worked with female MKs from the other side of the aisle on advancing the status of women?

SS: It does happen, but not in the way it should. There definitely could be more effort to promote equality, not just for women, but in general. Women could be part of the struggle for equality quite naturally, because we know what it is not to get the same rights … [but] there is no cause that only women should fight for. [For example,] I expect all members of Knesset to fight for the simple and obvious cause of making pay equal.

JJ: You have been outspoken on issues of religion and state, linking them to the other social justice issues on which you focus. Can you elaborate a little on your views?

SS: Israel, being a home for Jewish people, should be a place where Jewish religion and culture get the most freedom and for all streams. [There should be] respect for all streams, and [we should be] allowing constant renewal and a constant broadening of our culture. The fact that here, of all places, there are so many barriers to streams experiencing, expressing and practicing their Judaism [is] really damaging. This is where Judaism should really flourish. It should be the strongest and the most inclusive, and it’s part of our most core values to be free people in our country. It’s the basic idea of Israel.

Israel should be a place of freedom where Jews and Arabs can practice freely and live the way they want to live. People who want to get married can get married only if they marry Orthodox. Gay people can’t get married freely, and straight people can’t get married legally if [they do it with a] Reform [ceremony]. It’s distancing many of our closest friends and partners from us.

The dominance of the Orthodox stream is taken almost for granted. Many Israelis, when they visit Jewish communities abroad and see how many ways there are to be Jewish … suddenly realize [that they] want to see this over here. [They want to] see people become more connected to [their] culture, but to do that, you have to offer people more ways to do that. The basic value is freedom for people to do what they want, to marry the way they want, to love the way they want. It’s important that all of [these things] in Israel today are run how the Orthodox stream wants it to be done. That’s not how it should be.

JJ: You stated that Israeli policies are distancing our allies. You recently wrote on Facebook that statements by leading right-wing coalition figures are driving away young American Jews whose Jewish identity you said “is not necessarily weaker than their parents’ generation.” There has been a vigorous debate among those who blame the distancing of American Jewry from Israel on Jerusalem’s policies and those who connect it with the general trend of declining communal affiliation. Can you elaborate on your views?

SS: I just visited the States, and every time I go, I see that phenomenon that young people are getting more and more distant from Israel. This is a strategic problem for Israel  — these people are now in university and in 10 years, they will be sitting in places where decisions are being made from which Israel security is influenced. And if they are not supportive of Israel, it will be an actual risk. 

For the Israeli government and some supporters abroad, the solution to this problem is to fight this either by ignoring [it] and trying to show other faces of Israel, and selling them falafel and saying Israel is a lovely place. The only way to connect them is to show that in Israel, there is discussion about our future.

Seventy percent of Israelis support a two-state solution, but when I told students [this], they were in shock. The only voice they hear from Israel is the right-wing voice coming from the prime minister and ministers [whom] they cannot connect to in any way … [and] the young Americans are holding liberal values.

Israel is place of tolerance and tikkun olam is the essence of Zionism — but [Americans hear Minister Naftali] Bennett or [Knesset Member Bezalel] Smotrich or [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu with his statement that “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves” and get more and more distant. What they don’t know is that in Israel, there is a discussion of our future, and they don’t know there is a strong progressive camp here in favor of a two-state solution.

They only hear the right and they cannot connect to it.