Young Israeli protest leaders visit NYC

Young Israeli protest leaders visit NYC

Stav Shaffir
After attending the J St. conference in Washington, DC, two prominent leaders of Israel’s social protest movement made the rounds of New York, hosted by a number of liberal Zionist groups and Jewish institutions.  I caught Stav Shaffir (26) and Yonatan Levi (27) at a lunch meeting, on March 29, co-hosted by the Labor-Zionist affiliate Ameinu, ARZA (the Association of Reform Zionists of America) and the American Zionist Movement.
Stav and Yonatan are attractive and articulate young journalists, with a good command of English and a profound understanding of their country, whose politics they are attempting to change profoundly. Yet they emphasize that they are Zionists and patriotic Israelis.  In reporting for the NY Jewish Week on their March 30 press conference at the Manhattan offices of the New Israel Fund, Doug Chandler observed the following:

[Stav Shaffir’s] grandparents came to Israel from Poland, Lithuania and Iraq to pursue the Zionist dream, she continued, and it’s now that very dream — the job of “building a real home” for the Jewish people — that her movement is seeking to reclaim. “We think the Zionist dream is a much bigger one than how the people on the extreme right picture it,” Shaffir said, adding that her movement could be called “Occupy Zionism.”

Shaffir with Yonatan Levi
As they explain it, the roots of their movement are in cottage cheese—or rather the successful consumer boycott last June that forced the price of cottage cheese to come down.  For the first time in a long while, Israelis felt empowered to collectively attempt to improve their lives and their society.  Hundreds of thousands of them rallied to 120 tent encampments which sprang up throughout the country, from the Lebanon border to Eilat, and to the weekly demonstrations, and almost daily committee and community meetings.  Twenty tent camps were set up by Arab Israelis, and one by the Ethiopian immigrant community—who all became convinced that they too had a stake in joining with their fellow citizens in this effort.  (The fact that Israelis of widely different background don’t get to know each other, and live very separate lives, is also a concern that the movement seeks to remedy.)

The young Israelis met with some Occupy activists in the US, but unlike that movement–which so far has succeeded more in terms of symbolism and public discourse than concretely–the Israeli movement has already affected government policies.  According to Stav and Yonatan, they have won changes in three areas: free pre-school education for three and four year-olds, a reversal of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s regressive tax agenda, and the provision of some protections for temporary contract workers.  But Stav and Yonatan readily admit that these are modest gains.
It’s often noted–to the chagrin of some of us peaceniks–that the social protest movement does not take a stand against Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  The movement’s widespread appeal has lifted beyond Ashkenazi liberals and leftists, because it includes many poor and working class Mizrachim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin) who traditionally support the Likud and other parties on the right.  It has succeeded in bursting through the usual inhibiting factor in Israeli politics—the issues of security and relations with the Palestinians, the Arab states and Iran.
Photo of Dafni Leef (who began the protests) held aloft with Stav Shaffir.
The contention that advancing a social agenda must be put off because of these other pressing matters is no longer convincing.  Stav and Yonatan site as evidence the fact that when the south of the country was under attack in the summer, activists in the south (when asked) insisted that the protests continue elsewhere.
They do not discount the need to take security threats seriously, but they refuse to be diverted from their social justice goals.  “The biggest challenge” they see is for Israeli politics to be transformed so that people vote on other issues, e.g., socio-economic policies, and not just questions of security and how Israel should relate to the Arab world.  Social justice must become a gut emotional reason to forge new voting patterns.
I believe that if the momentum of the social protest movement continues, that new elements of the population will be won over to the need for a negotiated peace with the Palestinians and an end to the  drain of economic resources which the continued expansion and subsidization of settlements cost the country.  Still, it’s not clear to me how this will translate electorally.  When I asked the speakers how the movement will impact the political parties, they indicated that more young people will join parties and vote, but the rest was unclear.  Yonatan thought that new parties may be created, which I quickly interjected would constitute a wasted effort due to proportional representation (a point that he did not dispute).

So far, there have been some partisan impacts on the leadership level.  Both Labor and Meretz now have new leaders who emphasize socio-economic issues (Shelly Yachimovich and Zehava Galon, respectively).  And even Shaul Mofaz, as the newly elected leader of Kadima, is claiming a social justice agenda—in contrast to his defeated rival, Tzipi Livni.  But how this will all come out in the end–especially given the crisis atmosphere vis-à-vis Iran and the ongoing tense stalemate with the Palestinians–is very much up in the air.

By | 2012-04-04T04:27:00-04:00 April 4th, 2012|Blog|1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Richard Schwartz April 4, 2012 at 1:39 pm - Reply

    Kol hakavod to these young activists. We need many more of them. Hopefully the additional upcoming protest will lead to a more just, compassionate, peaceful, and environmentally sustainable Israel.

    Bottom line: Israel needs a just, comprehensive, sustainable resolution of her conflict with the Palestinians in order to avoid renewed conflict, effectively respond to her domestic problems, and remain a Jewish AND a democratic state.

Leave A Comment