“It’s our generation’s responsibility to bring a genuine feeling of hope”

Palestine-Israel Journal: Congratulations on your expected election to the Knesset. Since you're under 30, you will apparently be the youngest member of the next Knesset and one of the youngest Knesset members in history.

Stav Shaffir: Thanks. I'm actually 27.

What motivated you to become an activist in the field, to become involved in the social protest movement in the summer of 2011?

It actually began at a very young age. I have an autistic sister and became familiar with the educational institutions for kids with special needs and the social welfare system, saw how it was eroding, virtually collapsing. In the final analysis, what mattered was how much money you had, not the ideology or beautiful myth that we are a country characterized by social solidarity that cares for its citizens' welfare. This really got me upset. I became active in all sorts of social frameworks, in hostels for Holocaust survivors and as a youth movement counselor. Before my army service I did a year of national service, formed an independent group that went to work in Tiberias, became a teacher.

I saw you did an interview with veteran women's rights activist Alice Shalvi. She was involved in the case of Alice Miller, who insisted on women's right to serve in the air force, a famous case before the Supreme Court. Following the ruling, I participated in a pilot's course for five months. Afterwards I did most of my army service as a reporter in the IDF magazine Bamahane. I spent a lot of time in the West Bank and even lived in Gaza before the disengagement. Thus by the time I was 21, I had gotten to know most of the aspects of Israeli society in a very profound way.

Then I was lucky to receive an incredible Olive Tree scholarship for Israelis and Palestinians, an undergraduate leadership study program in England. For three years a group of six Israelis and six Palestinians study together and work with people who already have resolved conflicts, like in North Ireland and South Africa. I also worked in the British Parliament, accumulated a tremendous amount of experience.

When I came back to Israel in 2009, I had a BA, a profession, and began to work as a journalist, but also felt the despair that seemed to be pervading Israeli society, a feeling that it was impossible to change things, everything was stuck, both from a political and a social point of view. I rented an apartment with a few friends and began an MA program, while working as a volunteer in a number of social organizations. When we organized demonstrations, a maximum of 50 people would come. We were shouting and shouting, and nothing was happening.

Then in the summer of 2011, I joined an event on Facebook of people who wanted to organize a protest against the high cost of housing. We began to set up all of the tents, and something happened which changed everything.

Why did this suddenly happen in the summer of 2011? Why were there suddenly many more than just 50 people?

In the months before that summer, some frightening anti-democratic laws were being proposed and passed in the Knesset, laws limiting the ability of amutot (NGOs) to function and a law against calling for a boycott against the settlements. And on the day that we began to set up the tents, the police told us that they wouldn't give us a permit to protest against the high cost of housing. This was really an extreme act on their part. This wasn't even political, and seemed really absurd. It really upset many, many people. The feeling was that they are depriving us of an essential freedom to express ourselves, deeply penetrating into our lives. What drew many to the demonstration was not necessarily the issue of housing but the fact that they were trying to tell us what is permitted and what is forbidden. This created a "buzz," a sense that something was happening.

The second thing was that I came to the demonstrations after having moderated many discussion circles on conflict resolution. One of the first things that we did after we set up the tents was to sit in circles to begin talking about the issues. We didn't just demonstrate for affordable housing, we also thought about and discussed the meaning of affordable housing. How is it done in different places around the world, and what is applicable to our reality? And to immediately begin to think about solutions. I'm a very pragmatic person. I can't imagine spending the rest of my life holding up placards in the street. What I want to see is solutions, to solve the world's problems, and to live our lives fully.

At the same time that the Israeli social protest movement started, something was happening with our neighbors, in Cairo, in Tahrir Square. Did you look in that direction? Were you inspired by it?

We had many sources of inspiration, including the Arab Spring, though the Spanish protests were probably more relevant to our problems. However, the Arab Spring was a great inspiration, because many Israelis were thinking at the time - how is it that they are able to do what they're doing, and we aren't? Even if there may be a sense of alienation and "otherness," the sight of people going out into the streets and bringing down regimes much harsher than ours - we are still a democracy - while they were doing it against violent dictatorships, made people say, "Wow!" But that wasn't what motivated them to go into the streets.

In Israel people think of themselves in categories. I'm an Ashkenazi or a Sephardi (though I happen to be both - half and half). I belong to this or that class, Jew or Arab, religious or secular, left or right. There is an economic left that is on the political right, and vice versa. The categories are distorted, but they are used to incite us against each other.

What we did in the protest movement was to break down all the barriers. From the beginning we said: There are no political parties here, just people. Everyone is invited as long as they are ready to talk with one another, without any violence. The protest is open, and we are all formulating the demands of the protest together. Soon there were 120 tent encampments throughout the country.

Within the organizing group, a discussion developed over whether the protest should focus only on affordable housing, or should be expanded to all of the issues. We are talking about housing, but actually about our home, what this home which is called our state should be like - the basic rights, housing, good education, health, fair employment conditions, the broadest meaning of the term home.

There was a lot of anger at the fact that we expanded it to say that "the people demand social justice," and not just affordable housing. I felt this was absolutely essential. We had an incredible feeling that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that might not return, and that it wasn't clear what was going to be the fate of this country. I left my work as a journalist two days after the protest began, and also my MA studies, with the feeling that this was it - an opportunity to really influence things. This opportunity had to be taken, because we couldn't forgive ourselves if it wasn't.

Why did this happen with your generation and not the previous generation? Why did they fail?

There was a tremendous generation gap. It may seem funny but, during the height of the protest, we connected much more intensely with the generation of our grandparents than with our parents. One of the most moving moments during the protest was when I saw a man around 90 years old holding a sign saying "In 1948 I came to help establish a state, and today I'm here to establish it once again." That was the link. The founding generation, the pioneering generation, represents tremendous difficulties but also extraordinary courage. I frequently quote from the book Tashach (1948) by writer Yoram Kaniuk - they didn't know what a state was, but they had the courage to do it. They founded a new economic system and asked how do we really serve the citizen? How do we build a better society? Maybe they made 1,001 mistakes, but they were courageous, creative and original, and they established something incredible. While our parents' generation sold it (laughs). They were born into that myth, not that the myth had been fully realized - Israel in the '60s only had relative equality. It was a poor country, and everything wasn't exactly great. But we were on the road to something. And our parents, who of course we love very much, were born into this, and they had another dream. They wanted to break away towards a liberal American dream. So they privatized everything that had been built. From the education system, the health system to the Dead Sea, everything was privatized and sold, on the cheap.

I was born in 1985, and that was the year that Chok Hahesderim (the Arrangements Law which provided a legal foundation for privatization and budget cutting - ed.) came into being. If they passed a law for free education for three- and four-year-olds a year before I was born, they repealed it a year later. They said we're in the midst of an economic crisis and can't do it. Suddenly we became a country of "It's impossible." Everyone is responsible for him or herself. From a country which had a great degree of solidarity at its foundation we became a bunch of individuals. This approach contradicted the contract between the state and its citizens. This is a state in which most people serve in the army from the age of 18, regardless of what family you came from and how much money you have. Alongside this social contract, there are also great expectations from the state. And the feeling of my generation is the state is not really there for us. We work, pay taxes, volunteer for things, but nothing's there, the social safety net is evaporating. Social mobility in Israel has dropped down to zero. Only the United States has a lower level of mobility. We are also at the bottom end, second only to the U.S. in the Western world, when it comes to socioeconomic gaps between the rich and poor. Social services are collapsing, personal expenses for health coverage are the third-highest in the world, and good public education services go primarily to those who have the money to pay for it.

Our society is very weak, and this is accompanied by a diplomatic path which is leading nowhere. And these things are interconnected. The myth that our parents sold us, that if we would only make the effort, if we work hard and study, we will succeed - today it's just a myth. If we were born into a family in more difficult circumstances, that will remain our fate. And if we were born into a family which is well off, that's where we'll stay.

The social protest movement has reached a crossroads. There are those who want to continue working in the street, to change the entire structure of society from the ground up. And others say that the energy of the protest movement has to be translated into political power, which means becoming involved in politics.

I don't know what it means to change everything. We are living in a democratic society. I think that there are people who are afraid of politics, afraid of power. We are used to seeing power as something negative, even corrupt. We see powerful people functioning in such a manner and not serving the interests of the general public, so people avoid getting involved. There is a great sense of betrayal. And this feeling was only reinforced in the course of the protest. I spent more time during the past year in Knesset committee meetings than many Knesset members themselves. I saw how Knesset members follow electoral or even personal interests, not the public interest. The corrupt political system defends itself by becoming even more corrupt. And this causes many good people to keep their distance from politics. They simply don't want to be there. What happens is that people with good will and the ability to change things go to work in the educational system or with social organizations.

Yet when you look at the people on the right side of the political spectrum, because of their nationalistic outlook and the fact that they are less individualistic, they seem to be more ready to enter and remain within the political system than people with liberal, humanistic values. People on the center and left get sick of the system and withdraw or retreat to personal pursuits.

Yes, the people on the right understand the role of power. We saw this even beginning with the days of the Gush Emunim settlement movement.

So you are saying that the task, the challenge, is to enter politics and to create a different politics.

I think that the left makes a major mistake. The right has privatized the most basic concepts, including Zionism itself. The fact that Naftali Bennett, the new head of the right-wing Jewish Home Party, calls himself a Zionist is something terrible in my eyes. The policy that he promotes will create a bi-national state, which will totally destroy the Zionist vision. They privatized our national existence. The left and the center, the sane voice in this country, not only do not challenge them on these things; they essentially flee from the confrontation. This is a fatal mistake. This is our country, and we have to define its identity. We have to enter into the places of power and to channel them to the desirable goals. Politics should be filled with good people. The Knesset should consist of 120 leaders who are concerned about and care for the needs of Israeli society, not only those of their own voters. It will take time - who knows when this vision will be realized - but we've got to start going in that direction.

There are those who say that the protest movement has died. What's your answer to that?

The protest has not died. Just one year ago, when politicians said, "You must enter politics; why are you continuing with all the protests?" I said no, because we have much more influence from the street. But I began to realize that we had reached the limits of our influence via the street. The Israel of today is not the Israel before the summer of 2011. We completely changed the Israeli discourse, which now speaks about all of the topics that it never spoke about before, its basic values, and in a language of solutions. Today politicians are embarrassed to appear before the public without providing a socioeconomic vision and without saying that they are serving the interests of the public. And the connection between the socioeconomical and the diplomatic-political is also beginning to be made. However, changes in the system itself have not been made. And there's no other way of changing the system than going to change it. We don't live in a dictatorship, so we're not going to carry out a violent revolution. We've got a democracy, but we have to make use of it. Forty percent of the eligible voters do not vote. They are in such a state of despair that they don't bother to vote.

The protest not died, it's much stronger, because now it will have representation in the Knesset. The protest began in the street, and now I was elected to the ninth position on the list in a completely democratic manner, with no political deals, no vote contractors, just democracy - an incredible achievement. So much can now be achieved - in conjunction with the street. It's not a question of either-or - protest or Knesset - but both, together. It's being a social lobby within the Knesset. All of us are continuing, and continuing together.

In conclusion, we see that Shelly Yachimovich, the Labor Party leader, is doing the same thing that the social protest movement did in the summer of 2011. She is focusing only on the socioeconomic issues. What about the essential connection between the political issues, the settlements, the cost of the occupation, the security costs and the socioeconomic situation, and the need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

That's not true Shelly speaks about the social situation but not at the expense of the political questions. People in Israel are used to speaking only about the political/security/diplomatic issues. Today we are not only speaking about security but about both things. We are simply not used to having the economic discourse at the top of the agenda. Shelly agrees with the Clinton Parameters. If Shelly is elected prime minister, the first thing she will do is to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians. Look at the Labor Party Knesset list, a group of people committed to this. I am committed to it, others are as well, but we are not dropping everything else and only speaking about it. On the contrary, the fact that we managed to reach a situation where we speak in universal terms, about basic rights, like the right to a home, to an education - these are not just rights for Jews alone. We are also speaking about the Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel, and we are speaking about our neighbors. We're not evading anything. But Israeli society, as it exists today, in its divided, weak and insecure situation, is less capable of arriving at the necessary compromises. A society where racism and hatred are developing because of economic weakness is a weak society. If we want to create a society that can make peace, that has the internal security to do so, that has fewer gaps and true strength, these are parallel processes.

If there is one thing that my generation is trying to do it is to renew the feeling that it is possible to solve problems in all of the spheres. We are doing that in the socioeconomic sphere, and we'll also do that in the diplomatic sphere. We were born into a very cynical state, a somewhat damaged society in a state of despair, and what we have to do is to bring a genuine feeling of hope and a commitment to realize it. That's our responsibility. It's a responsibility that we'll take from the street and transfer to the Knesset.