Shaffir & Levi

Late last month, two prominent leaders of Israel’s social protest movement made the rounds of New York, hosted by a number of progressive Zionist groups and Jewish institutions. I caught Stav Shaffir (26) and Yonatan Levi (27) on March 29, at a lunch meeting co-sponsored by the Labor-Zionist Ameinu organization, ARZA (the Association of Reform Zionists of America) and the American Zionist Movement (the umbrella body for Zionist groups in the US).

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. For me, part of their appeal is that they are patriotic Israelis and progressive Zionists. An article in the NY Jewish Week, on their March 30 press conference, noted 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.”

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 backgrounds live separate lives and don’t know each other is also a problem that the movement seeks to remedy. Stav mentioned the special situation of Arab citizens of Israel, speaking of their understandable distrust toward the Jewish majority, which must be overcome.

(I almost followed up about this in the Q & A, but chose another question–as you’ll see. My understanding is that the Rabin-Peres Labor-Meretz coalition from 1992-’96 was making progress in accommodating the Arab sector by increasing budget allocations to Israeli-Arab towns and in other ways, but these policies were not pursued by succeeding prime ministers. Particularly galling was the failure of Ehud Barak to reward Arab parties for their support of his election in 1999; then Palestinian-Israelis were massively alienated by his government’s police shootings of a dozen Israeli-Arabs blocking a road in a protest against Israel’s lethal reaction to the beginning of the Second Intifada in October 2000.)

Shaffir in tent city last summer.

Photos of Dafni Leef (who began the movement) and Shaffir, held aloft by demonstrators.

These two 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 right. It has succeeded in bursting through the usual inhibiting factor in Israeli politics—the issues of security and relations with the Arab world and Iran. (The security challenge is freshly illustrated by these news article in the Jerusalem Post and the NY Times on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula becoming a staging area for more attacks.)

Yet the contention that advancing a social agenda must be put off because of these other pressing matters is no longer compelling. Stav and Yonatan site as evidence the fact that when the south was under attack during the summer, activists there insisted that the protests continue elsewhere in the country.

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.

Images of rank & file demonstrators held aloft.

I believe that if the momentum of the social protest movement continues, new elements of the population will be won over to the cause of peace as the unwise and unjust drain of economic resources for the continued expansion and subsidization of settlements becomes more apparent. 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 social justice 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 ongoing crisis atmosphere vis-à-vis Iran and the tense stalemate with the Palestinians–is a very open question.

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