Sitting down at a leadership dinner last week at UCLA across from John Pérez, the former speaker of the California State Assembly, Sharren Haskel looked barely older than the college students who hosted the event.
At 32, and appearing much younger, the youngest Knesset member from the center-right Likud party doesn’t exactly look the part.
But for her, that’s exactly the point. In a recent interview at the Jewish Journal offices, Haskel lamented that Israel’s younger generation isn’t well represented in parliament.
She’s building her own political agenda around issues that disproportionately impact young people, such as the high cost of living and rent in Israel.
Before being elected to the Knesset last year, Haskel, a veterinary technician by trade, spent six years in Australia before returning to Israel five years ago. She also spent a year in Los Angeles, studying at Santa Monica College and learning to surf in Malibu, by her account.
Haskel is on a speaking tour in the United States timed to a Knesset recess. When she returns to Israel next month, it will be, at least in part, to wed her fiancé.
Jewish Journal: Israelis can be tough, to say the least. How does the bravado-driven culture impact your career as a woman in politics?
Sharren Haskel: You don’t think of a woman as the one who can lead the front lines, or be this general who makes the decision of where to take the troops and what to do with them. But I think that’s what’s so amazing about women in Israeli society, because we all join the army. Many of us serve not just in intelligence or with computers, we actually serve in the field as pilots; [and] we’re on the ground. I served in the Second Intifada. We got [attacked with] rocks, Molotov [cocktails], demonstrations, had to go and do house arrests — really intense physical work. And, obviously, normally any kind of man or woman in any kind of modern society would say this is not a job for women. But it’s not like that in the Israeli society, and I think this is what makes us also a little bit different.
JJ: It sounds as if you’re saying Israeli society is more accepting of women in leadership roles than most others. Is that the case?
SH: I definitely think the army has made a major impact on my life as a woman. …
I did a commander course, and in navigations [training], usually the guys didn’t want to be with women because, “Women cannot navigate — you know, look how they get lost in their cars or anything.” And in the commander course, every time for three weeks when we did the training — you walk with heavy equipment on you — I would always get to the last point [as one of] the first five [to arrive]. … Suddenly the guys wanted to come and be my partner in navigation, because they saw I’m actually really good at it. And this gave me as a woman an opportunity to actually believe in myself, that I’m equal to anyone else, that I’m capable. My body is physically as capable of doing anything that a male can do, and sometimes even better.
JJ: How does that experience translate as a Knesset member?
SH: I sit on the [Knesset] committee for [foreign affairs] and defense. This is the most important committee in Israel. I mean, the existence of Israel depends a lot on this committee. And I remember the first time I walked into the committee chamber. … I walk in and I can see all the looks, like everybody just stared at me, and I can see a big question mark on all their faces. “Who is this young woman? Is she an assistant of someone? Is she classified to come in here?” And then they see me sit at the table, and I could see the surprise on their faces. It gave me so much joy — to be able to come and make those important decisions. … It’s a young woman who comes and asks this old general who’s been in the army for years all these questions, and it’s an interesting dynamic.
JJ: Do you think Likud lacks young leadership? Is the party failing to appeal to young people?
SH: There are a lot of issues that are extremely important for [young people] that nobody spoke about before. For example, there’s the problem of cost of living, and how do we solve that. … I took it upon myself to come in and work within the problems of the food industry. … Every kind of food — you’ve got a council, and they’re the ones in charge of who’s going to grow what, how much they’re going to grow, how much they’re going to sell it for, who they’re going to sell it to. You can’t run a business like that. …
The opposition in the left wing came up with all these ridiculous ideas of how socialism and more involvement is going to solve these problems, and we, the younger generation in the right wing, keep on telling them it is not a solution. We have to liberate the market. And no one was voicing that in the Knesset, no one was speaking about it. And so that’s the voice that was missing in the Likud. This is something that no one speaks about and that I’m bringing in.
JJ: You’ve introduced a bill into the Knesset to decriminalize marijuana. On top of that, you’re the chair of the Lobby for Medical Cannabis. Why did you choose to work on this issue?
SH: Between 2009 and 2011, there were 500 people who sat in prison for up to a year because of self-use of marijuana. This is crazy! To put a person in jail, for a year, destroying his life for something like that — is this something that we need to do? And so this is a core issue of the Likud. We have to fight for justice for these people. Even if you look at alcohol abuse, drug abuse, all these issues: Does it help that we go put them in jail behind bars? Does it help that we open for them a criminal record? If someone is in such a bad place, such a bad state in his life that he’s actually addicted to these things, putting him in jail and opening a record will just push him further and further into the ground. And so what we need to do is invest all these millions of shekels that we invest in courts and in policing and prisons into education, into awareness about drugs and alcohol abuse, into rehabilitation facilities.
JJ: How’s is the fight for decriminalization of marijuana coming?
SH: It’s going to take a long time. There is a lot of opposition. A lot of people are really worried about it. There’s a big stigma about marijuana, that it can cause violence and you can die from it and all of these ideas that we know are untrue. As I said, even if someone’s got a problem — doesn’t matter if it’s marijuana or alcohol — we need to treat it in a certain way. Prison is not the answer.
JJ: What can Likud offer young people who feel there’s no future in Israel?
SH: People who are following me see I’m bringing a lot of new politics into my party and into the Knesset in general. I speak about issues that I’m really trying to drive forward and that are really important to [young people]. I’m their voice. Everything I do, every day I wake up, I enter the Knesset — I come and I deal with issues not for them, for us. … That’s what I bring. I deal with security and defense issues, but also most of my time is on civil issues, environmental issues, social issues, economic issues, things that actually affect their day-to-day to life. This is what I’m bringing for them.
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