How London made Stav Shaffir an activist on the streets of Tel Aviv

How living in London made Stav Shaffir an activist on the streets of Tel Aviv and the corridors of the Knesset.

Stav Shaffir (photo credit: NIR ARIELI)
Stav Shaffir
(photo credit: NIR ARIELI)
Zionist Union MK Stav Shaffir believes the Strategic Affairs Ministry, which is in charge of fighting the efforts to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, is waging the battle against BDS incorrectly.
And Shaffir would know, because she lived on campus in London at the time when the activists who were the forerunners of the BDS movement in London were honing their craft.
Before becoming a household name thanks to her leadership of the Tel Aviv socioeconomic protests of the summer of 2011, Shaffir studied for three years at the University of London on what was called an Olive Tree Scholarship.
The program was a unique initiative to support future Israeli and Arab leaders who wanted to fix the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She studied with a small group of Israeli and Palestinian students, who engaged in dialogue about the Middle East’s future.
“I was an activist from the moment I remember myself,” Shaffir told The Jerusalem Post in English in an interview in the Knesset. “Living in London showed me how Israel is perceived abroad. It was before the BDS movement, but Jewish students were already very scared. There were many campaigns against Israel. I saw that what Israel did to defend itself was old-fashioned, not understanding the needs of the young generation and not being able to relate to them. The complexity of the conflict wasn’t discussed in the most efficient way. I became an Israel advocate quite naturally.”
Shaffir believes the best approach to fight BDS is to tell people abroad about Israel’s progressive camp and its fight for social justice. She said people tell her they didn’t know those opinions exist in Israel.
“Young people especially identify Israel with the policies of its current government,” she said. “All we have to do is tell them about Israel being split half in half, with an advantage to those who support two states for two peoples. That gives them reasons to connect with Israel and support the progressive camp rather than back the boycott movement.”
Shaffir, who heads the Knesset’s Special Committee on Transparency, said the ministry has misused a hefty budget of NIS 300 million over the past two years for the political gain of the Right.
“Instead of fighting BDS, they’re purposely making it worse,” she charged. “The Foreign Ministry always had a policy of ignoring the BDS movement because it’s small. But the Strategic Affairs Ministry builds it up, in order to tell Israelis that the world is against us and to push Israelis more to the Right. This only further blocks the two-state solution.”
NOW 33, Shaffir was the youngest parliament member in Israel’s history when she entered the Knesset in 2013 after helping organize Israel’s largest-ever, cross-party protest, mobilizing hundreds of thousands of Israelis to take to the streets and set up protest camps throughout the country.
She is known for her relentless fight against the corrupt use of taxpayer money. In the Transparency Committee, she is leading a highly publicized reform on budgetary transparency, successfully exposing and blocking the massive use of government funds for political purposes.
Her success in fighting corruption and creating standards for government accountability led to her nomination to head the OECD’s Committee on Integrity and Transparency.
Shaffir moved up to third on the Zionist Union list when Isaac Herzog quit the Knesset, behind only Tzipi Livni and Shelly Yacimovich. While the party’s current leader, Avi Gabbay, often confuses his interlocutors with views all over the political map, Shaffir’s worldview is decisive and clear.
“Everyone still understands that we need a border between Israel and the Palestinians, and that means giving up land that we care about, that is part of our history and our culture,” she said. “The real question is whether we will be active and initiate real steps toward the two-state solution or remain passive and wait for a messiah, as we did before Zionism. The religious Right is pushing us to wait for external forces or the Palestinians to be the perfect partner. But the Palestinian leader won’t wrap himself in an Israeli flag. They are our enemies. We can’t wait for the Palestinians to disappear.”
Shaffir said she prefers seeking an agreement involving the Palestinians, moderate Arab countries, the US and Europe. But she would also take unilateral steps, such as stopping the building of settlement outposts and making sure Israelis do not receive government stipends to move to settlements.
“We have to start building our borders as we see them,” she said. “Everyone knows what the borders will look like. We’ve done it a million times. I think it’s anti-Zionist to have the Palestinians define our future. I want us to define our future, and it’s time to take the steps. Our security challenges are not going to be over. To secure our future, we need a defined border and need to remove the conflict from our path.”
Shaffir expressed concern over recent legislation against nongovernmental organizations and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent criticism of President Reuven Rivlin and Kiryat Shmona resident Orna Peretz.
“Our democracy is under threat like it never was before,” she said. “The right-wing camp is removing every rule and barrier that were there to defend democracy – attacking the justice system, critical citizens, human rights organizations, NGOs, the president – all the institutions are under attack by our government. My political camp must understand the urgency to change the course, fight the fight and make the camp more effective.”
On matters of religion and state, Shaffir has made a point of conducting unofficial civil weddings with a mixture of different traditions. She has prayed with the Women of the Wall and supported their cause, but on the rare occasion she goes to synagogue, like on Yom Kippur, she goes to the one near her parents’ house, which is Orthodox.
“I have close connections with all Jewish groups abroad,” she said. “I don’t differentiate, and I support all of them. They are all my people.”
There had been speculation that Shaffir would run in recent elections for Labor Party leader and Tel Aviv mayor. She decided to sit out both those races.
“It’s very important that I stay for now,” she said. “What I do in parliament is unique. I took upon myself to change how politics work and fight corruption. If we don’t change the system, we won’t be able to accomplish other goals. The majority of what Israelis want can’t be accomplished now.
“In the future, if I feel I can be more influential in one of the other positions, I will go ahead. But at the moment, I have to stay in parliament and complete this mission. I feel I’m needed here.”