The Women Fighting to Save Israel's Founding Party

While Merav Michaeli and Stav Shaffir campaign for Labor ahead of Monday's primary, both women already have their sights set on a post-Gabbay future

Merav Michaeli and Stav Shaffir.
Daniel Tchetchik, Olivier Fitoussi

Even before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her posse of congresswomen harnessed the power of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook Live to score upset victories and become household names in the United States, young female faces in Israeli politics were learning that social media was their ticket to greater political success and influence.

Israel Labour Party primary results, February 2019.
Haaretz

In the 2013 and 2015 Labor primary campaigns, Facebook was the powerful tool harnessed by relative newcomers like Merav Michaeli and Stav Shaffir to turbocharge their campaigns, reaching places on the party slate where old-fashioned glad-handing would never take them. Shaffir and Michaeli placed four and seven in the primary, respectively.

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Today, it is primarily Instagram, Twitter and Facebook that are the vehicles for rallying and maintaining support. While even the older, more established politicians in Labor have been forced to join the social media circus, it is hard for them to compete with digital natives like Shaffir or those with a professional mastery of the camera like Michaeli. None have managed, as Michaeli and Shaffir have, to translate social media followings into visible minions of active young supporters and volunteers.

This week, in the final countdown to Monday's Labor primary, Michaeli and Shaffir have crisscrossed the country from event to event, and their digital teams are at work around the clock making sure their “stories” are continually updated.

In a different, more promising political landscape, they would be using their digital skills to battle for greater influence within their party, dreaming of a ministerial job should they emerge victorious. But with polls showing Labor at an all-time low – battered by the popularity of newcomer Benny Gantz and his party, and lack of popularity for its own leader, Avi Gabbay – they are, instead, fighting for survival.

Unfortunately for this generation of ambitious up-and-comers in the Labor Party, their personal political stars have risen at a time when the strength of their chosen political home is failing. They must, therefore, fight for both their personal political survival – if they don’t make it into the very top spots, they won’t be in the Knesset at all – and then for the survival of their party.

In the grand tradition of social media, they are keeping up appearances – doing their best to appear cool as they work strenuously to get supporters to vote.

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Michaeli, sporting enormous Jackie O-style sunglasses and her trademark all-black outfits, posts relentlessly – before, during and after every event, unafraid of looking goofy or exposing potentially embarrassing candid moments.

“Live? I’m always live,” she said, looking to the camera as she settled in next to Labor veteran Amir Peretz at a party meeting. Media is in her blood: Even before Instagram and Facebook, the 52-year-old politician was already an “old media” personality, with a high-profile career as a radio and television host in her 20s before turning to feminist activism and then party politics. (Full disclosure: She was also a Haaretz opinion writer from 2009-2012.) She first ran on the Labor slate in 2013, where she placed fifth on the list, and quickly became an active legislator who broadcasts online – all day, every day, briefing her followers on her daily activities – from her Pilates workouts to the dishes on her dishrack.

Shaffir, who is significantly younger than Michaeli, became the youngest-ever MK when she was first elected in 2013 at age 27, trading on her popularity as a leader of the social justice movement in 2011 to win the ninth slot on the party slate. In the 2015 primary, she stunned the party by finishing second. On social media, Shaffir doesn’t seem to be as comfortable with outright silliness as Michaeli, with more of her posts projecting gravitas. She does trade on her mane of orange hair – making the color her signature.

Like Michaeli, Shaffir was invited to become a part of the Labor Party when Shelly Yacimovich was at the helm, pursuing a determined campaign to make the aging party of political veterans younger and more female. Although Yacimovich failed to become a viable choice to lead the country, she succeeded at revitalizing the party ranks. Shaffir was her most dramatically successful recruit. She was an immediate hit – and not only in Israel. She has been a rock star on the international circuit: From the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial Conference to J Street, she is a favorite of Jewish progressives abroad.

Recently, in an unusual move, Shaffir was publicly endorsed by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. In a video, Weingarten called Shaffir “one of the most, if not the most, effective ambassadors to America that Israel has” and said that “all Israelis should be grateful for the kind of vision she brings and the advocacy she does.”

Shaffir posted a video on the eve of the primary, recounting that one of her "proudest moments” was when Weingarten asked her to speak in front of her union at a time when a resolution by the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement was under consideration, in order to help convince union members not to move the resolution forward.

But for all their carefully cultivated personal popularity, both women, in addition to other members of their generation of Labor politics, are trapped behind an increasingly unpopular leader. Gabbay, who challenged and defeated Isaac Herzog in 2017, was supposed to breathe new life into the party. But instead of becoming the party’s savior, he seems to be running it into the ground, with longtime Labor stalwarts abandoning the party, and the general public viewing him as a less attractive alternative to Netanyahu than both Gantz and Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid.

To make it even more challenging for young feminists like Michaeli and Shaffir to gin up their supporters for Monday’s primary, Gabbay deeply alienated women by the way he jettisoned Herzog’s former political partner, Tzipi Livni, ambushing her in a humiliating surprise on live television.

Still, both women, unlike some of their colleagues, have decided not to abandon ship. (Shaffir seriously flirted with the idea of running for Tel Aviv mayor, before abandoning it.)  They are gritting their teeth and sticking with the party, though Gabbay’s name remains unmentioned in their plethora of social media posts.   

Dutifully, Michaeli starred in a video that attempted to impress voters with the fact that Labor has pledged not to join a Netanyahu government under any circumstances and challenged the other parties to do the same. They both were featured in a subsequent video that made a slightly more desperate appeal for Labor supporters to “come home,” reminding them that their party “isn’t young, glamorous and sexy, but it’s a real party, with power, experience and a direction” – one which they will stick to “even if things get tough” (basically admitting they already are).

But while they do their duty, it’s easy to tell from their Instagram feeds that Michaeli and Shaffir – along with colleagues like 39-year old Itzik Shmuli, another member of the 2013 freshmen class – have their eyes on a post-Gabbay future, one in which they can finally get their chance to translate their personal – and Instagram – popularity into a shot at real leadership.