MK Sharren Haskel was the star attraction at the opening of the Likud Youth Movement convention in Ramat Gan’s Kfar Maccabiah hotel earlier this month. In fact, there was so much commotion around her, and so many requests for selfies, that at some point the moderator asked people to leave her alone so the evening could begin on schedule. The youth movement was convening for the first time in 11 years, with the aim of introducing the next generation of Likudniks. Haskel, as the freshest embodiment of this generation in the Knesset, was naturally accorded a place of honor on the front row.
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From here on, the evening became an angry settling of old scores, including provocative speeches that noted the harmful effects of the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, and speeches expressing hope for the ditching of such concepts as “the castrating state prosecution,” “a Palestinian state” or the merry wives of Machsom Watch (the nonprofit that studies checkpoints in the West Bank), just like “The Hunting Season” did for pre-state underground Irgun members handed over to the British in 1944-45. Haskel’s political incubation took place in the office of former cabinet minister Michael Eitan, one of the more prominent members of the moderate, liberal wing of Likud. He consistently tried to protect the rule of law, a position she is thought to represent as well. She sat through the convention, listening in silence.
In a symbolic act embraced by a large majority, toward the end the participants ratified the convention’s principles, including a call on the government “to launch a settlement drive throughout our country, particularly in the ‘Land of the Bible’”; to “impose Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria”; and to “remove radical elements who challenge our sovereignty on the Temple Mount.” Haskel, who was backed in the Likud primary by a group called New Likudniks – an organization with secular and democratic principles that emphasizes its affinity with the political center – remained restrained, with body language that was hard to decipher.
Middle class interests
A tour of the Knesset with Haskel is a good starting point to gauge the modern face of the ruling party. One can discern the rising influence of the new liberal wing, which introduces members to the party through a group called Likud Liberals, and advocates for the privatization of government companies, a reduction in taxes and the elimination of subsidies.
One of this group’s founders is Boaz Arad, who attended Haskel’s swearing-in ceremony at the parliament on September 2. It was there she said that Israel’s future depends not just on security but “on the existence of a free economy that supports private enterprise.” This wasn’t a one-off remark – she repeatedly expresses her commitment to a right-wing economic ideology (“That’s the real social issue”).
These views match those of the New Likudniks. The group, which supports middle class interests, was launched in the summer of 2011 after the social-protest movement erupted in Israel. Its founder, Lior Meiri, called on people to join Likud in large numbers, “so we can influence from within.”
Haskel is 31, the middle child of three sisters. Her father, Amir, comes from a family of Palmach veterans (the elite strike force of the Haganah in prestate Israel), from the moshav of Tzofit, central Israel. He was a tour guide in Paris in his youth. There he met Fabienne, who had moved there from Morocco. They married shortly afterward and moved to Toronto, where Fabienne had a job offer as an English teacher.
When Sharren Haskel was a year old, the family returned to Israel and settled in Kfar Sava. Her parents established a furniture store in Ra’anana and went to France from time to time to visit family. On one occasion, a routine meal at McDonald’s turned into a life-changing event. “I played with a Muslim French kid who recognized my accent,” she recalls. “He asked where I was from, and when I proudly answered Israel, he spat to the side and said ‘Dirty Jew.’ In Israel, we grow up in a very liberal atmosphere – in kindergarten, we hear about other religions and communities, about multiculturalism. At that moment, I felt different and marginalized for the first time because I was Jewish. That scarred me and strengthened the significance of Israel as my home.”
Her parents’ divorce was “unfriendly, to say the least,” she relates. “The store was taken over by my mother but ran into debt, and from there things only got worse.” In retrospect, she says, that’s where the seeds grew that formed her economic ideology. “I got my motivation and determination at home. Being financially dependent on the state is disastrous and leaves you in a circle of poverty. Our economy is based on small- and medium-size businesses and this should be encouraged, giving people who want to invest and succeed the means to do so.”
In her youth, she was a member of her student council and a leader in the scouts movement. In junior high school she was active in Peace Now. Acquaintances from that period say she regularly attended weekly activities at the Kfar Sava branch of the peace movement. She participated in a demonstration held at the Ra’anana interchange, where she distributed stickers supporting the Oslo Accords and opposing Benjamin Netanyahu, then in his first term as prime minister. She even attended a Peace Now Purim event dressed as a clown, to “represent the clowns in the Netanyahu government.” Today, she wishes to downplay that episode, saying merely that “Kfar Sava was a Labor stronghold and I grew up in that atmosphere.”
Another more developed form of activism at the time related to animal rights. She became a devout vegetarian (and is currently a vegan), distributing graphic leaflets of what happened at slaughterhouses among her acquaintances long before it was commonplace.
Her friends from those days describe her as having a strong sense of justice in other areas as well: She’d intervene every time she encountered a girl who was harassed or threatened. When I ask Haskel where this came from, she says most women have been harassed or assaulted at some point in their life. “It’s something you experience and learn how to contend with and face. Beyond that, I’d rather not elaborate,” she notes.
People who went to junior high school with her remember a combative yet detached girl, who was noticeably loud, wore designer clothes and smoked pot.
However, from the start of the second intifada, in 2000, her political views started shifting rightward. The first cracks in her worldview occurred when she twice had narrow escapes from riding on buses that were targeted by suicide bombers (“The attacks happened on the bus line I took to school, and it was pure chance I wasn’t on those buses”). Later, in 2003, a friend was murdered when a terrorist infiltrated the Gaza settlement of Netzarim, and she lost another friend shortly afterward in a terror attack at Kfar Sava’s Geha intersection.
When she was inducted into the Israel Defense Forces, she decided to join a combat unit. She was placed in a Border Police unit and attended a squad commanders’ course (“The first female Bedouin soldier was in the group I led,” she says with pride). Haskel says her years in the IDF at the height of the second intifada – including the terrorist acts, Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank and the fragile truce – were all instrumental in shaping her worldview. “You stand at checkpoints, detain people, catch suspects, attend demolitions of terrorist houses, police demonstrations, and you just keep getting beat up. All the time. When you see this through your own eyes and not filtered through the media, you obviously go through a process.”
Didn’t direct contact with Palestinians make you more empathetic toward them? Weren’t you upset by what you witnessed?
“No. There really isn’t a more moral army in the world than ours. We took every measure so their lives would be minimally impacted, precisely at a time when terrorists wearing suicide vests were blowing themselves up amid our soldiers – it wasn’t easy maneuvering through such a reality.”
What about the mistreatment, humiliations, pregnant women being detained unnecessarily?
“All legends. I never encountered such situations. Don’t forget there were cases of women hiding explosives in their clothes who only looked pregnant. No one was there to humiliate people. Our task was to ensure there were no risks to the citizens of our country. Attempts at humiliation were actually perpetrated by the other side. It’s impossible to count the number of comments and curses I received from people I came into contact with, supposedly in an attempt to make me angry, especially as a woman.”
Why was it connected to your being a woman?
“Because a lot of times in this population there is no respect or understanding shown to women. They know that as soon as they utter certain things – and I don’t mean just chauvinist comments but sexual harassment, with rude and hurtful remarks – it will hurt you in the most personal manner. A male soldier wouldn’t hear such comments. If I hadn’t been in uniform at the time, I could have lodged a complaint with the police about comments I was subjected to.”
Maybe your hurt is less severe than the violations of their freedom of movement?
“If there were no attempts to hurt innocent people, there would be no restrictions on their travel. My father had business contacts in Gaza and Nablus. We used to go in and out of there without any problems. Then things got violent, with attacks and the [second] intifada. Why don’t the Palestinians invest in industry in Ramallah instead of investing in weapons and terror? They should invest in their economy so they don’t have to cross checkpoints into Israel. They should invest in education, in good teachers, then they wouldn’t depend on our support.”
Israel via Australia
At the end of her military service, Haskel traveled to the United States, where she studied education at Santa Monica College. She met an Australian man, whom she followed to Sydney a year later. She remained there even after the relationship fizzled out, living in Australia for six years. During that time, she became a veterinarian nurse. She also volunteered with an NGO that saved wildlife and started working on a degree in political science and international relations through the Open University.
Six years isn’t just a post-army trip – it’s a prelude to emigration.
“It was a prelude, but the sense of foreignness doesn’t let go of you. I felt that in order to really be who I am, feeling free, this is the only place where I belong, which is why I returned. I started asking myself where I wanted to build my adult life, and whether I want my children to be Israeli or Australian.”
She returned in 2012 and tried to establish a local NGO devoted to wildlife. This didn’t work out and she started volunteering in the office of Michael Eitan. After that, she spent a few months working as an assistant to a spokesman at the Environmental Protection Ministry.
Her next political move came during the municipal elections of 2013, placing fourth on Likud’s list in Kfar Sava. She didn’t get elected then, but did well in the 2015 Likud primary, finishing 31st on its Knesset list. After Likud’s sweeping success in the March election, when it claimed 30 seats, and the mid-August appointment of Danny Danon as Israel’s envoy to the United Nations, she found herself serving as a member of the Knesset.
Her childhood friends from Kfar Sava who remember her left-wing activism were surprised to see her in Likud, saying her shift occurred mainly in Australia. “She read a lot there, a lot of materials to do with Islam, and I remember her telling me that reading ‘The Crisis of Islam’ really shook her up,” says one friend. Haskel confirms that Bernard Lewis’ book, which describes the characteristics of contemporary fundamentalist Muslim movements, made a deep impression on her. She adds that she was also affected by the book “The Industry of Lies,” by Israeli journalist Ben-Dror Yemini.
While in Australia she took an Open University course on the contemporary Middle East. “It opened my eyes about different rivalries, tribes and cultures,” she says. But beyond theoretical study of the issues, it was the geographical distance that was most telling. “I encountered racism and prejudice on many occasions while I was abroad, and that led me to new understandings about home and country,” she explains.
When it comes to political positions, she now speaks fluent “Netanyahu-ese” (“How can you negotiate with someone who doesn’t recognize you?”; “Here we condemn and there they name city squares after murderers”). She talks of feeling a special affinity with the West Bank, which began with her military service and is now only deepening. “The more I traveled there and learned our history, the more I understood the significance of these sites. I recently visited Hebron and the feelings aroused by visiting the Tomb of the Patriarchs ... it’s a piece of history.”
As a secular person, what feelings does it evoke in you?
“I grew up in a traditional home. I’m not religious and don’t observe the Sabbath, but I still think it’s important to make kiddush on Friday night and fast on Yom Kippur. Besides their importance as holy sites, these places have a deep cultural significance. The Temple Mount doesn’t only symbolize the Divine Presence, but also the history of this nation and the biblical stories on which we all grew up. It all starts there.”