Stav Shafir - Emil Salman - 02082011
Protest leader Stav Shafir. Photo by Emil Salman
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On Saturday night it seemed that the leaders of the protest movement were at the heart of the Israeli consensus. Tens of thousands of people went out into the streets to support the call for social justice in Israel. But on Sunday, the leaders called a press conference and demanded that the prime minister meet with them directly, without intermediaries, and in front of a camera. So yesterday they were widely criticized.

"It's an attempt to humiliate Netanyahu," said one of their partners in the protest. In the end they withdrew their demand to document the meeting, if and when it takes place. Stav Shafir of Tel Aviv, 26, has been one of the protests' leaders since the first day.

Stav Shafir, has success gone to your heads? Are you drunk on power?

How can we be drunk on power when we have yet to see our lives change? We don't sleep at night. From the moment we put up the first tent, none of us has gone to sleep or done anything connected to our previous lives. We're devoting ourselves to this thing wholeheartedly, because we're sure it will effect change, and we feel the weight of responsibility on our shoulders. We won't be able to look those whose lives can be changed in the eye if we don't continue to lead the protest and do everything we can to create the society we all want here.

Was the demand to hold direct negotiations solely with the prime minister and to film it exaggerated in your opinion, or did you withdraw it because of the criticism?

Conducting a transparent process is the most important thing to us. This has been the most prominent feature from the start. The protest is a transparent one, a protest in which everyone is a leader and everyone is responsible for change. The desire to hold [talks] in front of a camera was only made to continue with this transparency, and was not meant as a challenge. It really surprises us that the Prime Minister's Office is afraid to expose the process to the public. Since it scares them so much, we decided to do as they asked.

But our desire is to show every step to the people. Our central demand, which was ignored by the Prime Minister's Office, was to do away with the vadalim [the national housing committees empowered to expedite planning approval for major housing projects] to mark the start of the discussion. The Prime Minister's Office decided to ignore this demand and point a finger at our desire to create a transparent, democratic process.

In practice, you and your friends leading the protest have been anointed by the media. Where does your mandate to make demands and conduct negotiations come from?

What about the 200,000 people who marched with us Saturday night, at 12 locations all over the country? That's the media? And the media are also people, just as the police are people, and all of us share the same problems. The fact that the media is supportive, as are the police, who wish us success after they move us from blocking a road, is because all of us here feel the same distress, a popular distress that doesn't belong to one particular community. It's the largest social protest in this country, and any attempt to minimize its value is just sad.

On Friday, two representatives were chosen by the Rothschild Boulevard tent protesters. And representatives were chosen for other protest centers around the country. Wouldn't it have been better if these people had led the protest from then on?

Our mandate is the one we received with our feet, by putting up tents in four cities. We represent public thinking. Each of the tent representatives represents a particular tent. We represent the protest at large and are trying to do so with complete transparency, and with the continuous cooperation of representatives of the public and the tents.

Before we spoke at the rally we collected everyone's demands from all the tent encampments around the country and a very moving thing happened: All the demands were nearly exactly the same. People here want the same thing. We started speaking out, but this voice will echo without us as well; it exists out there. We're just trying to help turn it into reality.

Does the fact that the Histadrut labor federation and local elected authorities have joined strengthen the protest, or will this cause the movement to splinter?

Each additional body interested in helping strengthens the protest. Just as we're interested in speaking with the government, we're interested in speaking with any organization or similar protest movement, with everyone who wants to help. It's important to emphasize that our demands are the demands of the public and not ones related to particular sectors. Our audience includes all communities, people of all ages, all layers of the population.

It's said that you don't really know what you want. Can you clarify your goals?

We want a country that uses the principles of the welfare state that we all heard about in the past - but in the modern Israel of 2011. We want a society with a free market but one that is also balanced and in control of economic processes, to make sure that we, the people, are part of the equation. In a country with so many problems, not only in the weakest parts of the population, but also in the middle class, this demand for a policy change is only fair.

We're not communists, anarchists or fascists as we've been called by some Knesset members. We're a group of ordinary people who serve the country, who grew up here with a belief that part of the contract between the citizen and the state means that the citizen receives a solution to basic needs. What we have created in the last two and a half weeks is a country within the country. In the tents sits a society that ... is concerned about education, dialogue, discussion, culture and support. This can exist in Israeli society at large.

Do you want to unseat the government or change priorities, or perhaps both?

We want to change priorities and the system. Our complaint is directed against the existing government, [although] earlier governments behaved similarly and did not solve our problems. They chose to ignore the problems closest to our hearts, beyond the large problems we have facing other peoples and countries. We demand the return of the government to the people. If the government agrees to change its priorities and change the rules of the game, there's no reason why people who now hold positions of power can't remain in them. We don't want to change the members of the Knesset but rather to change the system.

Will this social protest also spawn a new political movement?

It's too early to say. A movement, in the simplest terms, not in a political sense, already exists. We're on the move and a new wind is blowing. It's a popular protest, and therein lies its power.

How do you think this struggle will end?

The revolution has already taken place. We're learning to express our desires and not be ashamed of them. In this sense, we as a society have already undergone a revolution. The protest will end the minute we begin to see that the reality we demand is coming into being.