Social Protest Leader Tells Haaretz: Israelis Won't Accept the Status Quo

This summer's social-justice movement is organizing another rally for Saturday night, after weeks of hibernation, to show that social issues are still on the agenda. But will people come? An interview with Stav Shaffir.

Stav Shaffir's cellphone began ringing frenetically again this week. True, it was not like two or three months ago, when the activity of the protest movement peaked, but speculation is rife that the movement may soon again be all the rage, after several weeks of hibernation. Will Saturday night's demonstration turn out to be an impotent, ineffectual coda to this summer's frenetic protests?

In recent days Shaffir and her colleagues who initiated the tent protest movement, have been doing their utmost to put socioeconomic issues back on the public agenda. The attention diverted to Gilad Shalit's release, and the return to work and school after the fall holidays may frustrate their efforts to reenergize protestors following the climactic "march of the million" on September 3, they say.

shaffir - Moti Milrod - October 28 2011
Moti Milrod

This week, some protest leaders produced short films calling on the public to come to Saturday's demonstration. They posted them online, but only a few hundred people viewed them. Shaffir stars in a short piece filmed at a bank. With a big grin on her face, she optimistically declares "the people demand social justice."

"This is just the beginning," Shaffir confidently declares. This auburn-haired woman, who turned into a symbol of the protests, believes Saturday's rally will draw masses. Israelis will not accept the status quo, and she wants to change it.

Tent camps have been taken down, enthusiasm has dampened, and the university students don't really support your actions. Do you believe your group can bring people to the streets again?

"More than ever before, we need to hit the streets to prove we won't be stopped if change doesn't happen. Such a large protest movement is a one-time occurrence. I don't know when an opportunity like this will come again, so we cannot afford to miss it. I don't know where we will end up if the millions who took part in this protest return to despair."

The public took to the streets time after time last summer. You are not happy with the results. How will another demonstration help?

"A demonstration is an emotional act - that's its great advantage. Sometimes, as citizens, we need to be reminded that we are not alone, that an entire public is with us. The government needs to be reminded constantly that the public won't stay quiet, and is not willing to be swindled and duped. In terms of getting this message across, there's nothing like hundreds of thousands of people shouting together."

If this demonstration has a light turnout, that might indicate that the Trajtenberg Committee satisfied the public. Are you worried that instead of rejuvenating the protest, you might bury it?

"There's no question about rejuvenating the protest, because it never died. The government is trying to break up the protest via an array of methods, but people haven't stopped talking about it. Everyone who passes me on the street looks me in the eye and says 'don't stop, just don't stop.' What's happening here is that society decided to take responsibility for the state it's in. This change will take time."

Changing the system

Shaffir, 26, quit her job as a writer for Yedioth Ahronoth's women's site Xnet a few days after the protests began. While she says she loathes politicians and the political system as a whole, she acts and expresses herself in measured, cautious tones. The one exception is when it comes to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom she stridently attacks.

"Bibi proved that he is not brave enough to look the people straight in the eye. From the very beginning of the protests, he never looked us in the eye," she accuses. "He smoothed this over, he concealed things. He did nothing to create a real connection with us. He had plenty of opportunities, but nothing happened. The Knesset now faces a real test, as does the prime minister."

Despite such castigations, neither Shaffir nor her protest colleagues say they are seeking to have Netanyahu replaced. "The change must be systematic; it is not personal," she says. "The ideology of privatization, of reducing public allocations and of selling society's resources does not belong to any single individual. The public is seeking a new ideology."

She believes that the protests will find expression in the next national elections, whenever they are held. "The public will support candidates with a social commitment; we won't buy the lies we've been fed for so many years. Now we're connecting the issues of security and social welfare. Diplomatic-security issues will not monopolize the next election; social issues will also count," predicts Shaffir.

She and other protest leaders categorically reject the recommendations of the Trajtenberg Committee report. "Time will show that this [report] just perpetuates existing policy," she explains. "It also totally ignores most of the issues we discussed. Where are health, social welfare, public housing, employment? What really happened there? What have we received? This committee hasn't changed things."

Perhaps the protest's failure to change policy priorities proves that in order to bring change, you need to enter politics?

"It would be wrong for us to become infected by any of the existing parties' partisan interests. We are committed to maintaining common ground, without breaking down into sectors. What we are doing is very political, and we talk with politicians, but it would be a grave mistake for this protest movement to become attached to any party."

You say "existing parties." Does that mean a new party is under consideration?

"I'm not thinking about it. I hear about initiatives of that sort all the time. The saddest thing is to have politicians preach this to us. What does that say about our democracy? In other democracies, you don't have to be part of a political party in order to have influence. Yet I am sure that this protest will encourage people to become involved in the political process, in one way or another. What will this lead to? We'll definitely find out during the next elections."

Could you see yourself becoming a Knesset member?

"I've never had such plans, and I have no idea what the present will bring. Right now, I don't have any such thoughts. I'm very content with the route I've chosen, the one we must follow as citizens."

Maintaining chaos

Shaffir was interviewed this week by Time magazine. The article, "What Occupy Wall Street can learn from Occupy Tel Aviv," compared the Israeli protest movement and the Occupy Wall Street campaign. "The other thing that's very important is chaos," she said, You have to be like water, to be everywhere, to be unpredictable," she told Time.

Although the principles emphasized by Shaffir in that interview have been repeated by movement leaders since the summer, she nonetheless asked to coordinate her conversation with Haaretz with a movement spokesperson. The protest's leadership works with an adept public relations strategist, professional filmmakers and a speechwriter. Press conferences have become part of the routine.

"We are not an organization. The last thing you can say about us is that we work in an orderly fashion," Shaffir insists. "Everyone takes part in the process. We don't stage votes, and we don't have a hierarchical structure. Increasingly, we are starting to function as a movement, but this is not a movement in the old sense of the word. Our biggest goal is to enable people to feel they have power. If citizens in Israel do not feel like they have power, all of us will lose."

In practice, the protest movement's inner circle has a tight grip on the reins. Its members might talk about a new form of politics and popular democracy, but representatives of the tent compounds were not involved in decision making processes, and key activists were nudged to the margins while others simply quit, accusing the leaders of grabbing the spotlight.

Meantime, the movement's leaders became embroiled in disputes, and these conflicts continue. The deepest rift is between the protest's initiators and the country's university students. As a result, National Student Union Chairman Itzik Shmuli was not involved in planning tomorrow's demonstration; it was all done by a small inner circle of leaders. "We cannot allow ourselves to dilute our strength in demonstrations," Shmuli stated this week.

"Do the half a million people who attended the last demonstration need to vote? This is not a state, it is a protest. It's based on freedom of action," Shaffir says, rebuffing the students' accusation."So long as we all pursue one goal, of forging a better state, it's fine that we're working in different forums."

Shaffir is pinning hopes on a "people's strike" scheduled for November 1, this coming Tuesday. The success of the Tel Aviv student union's boycott of Super-Sol and Tnuva encourages Shaffir. "We've learned that economic pressure is necessary, not just filling the streets," she concludes.