J Street’s Fiery Rock Star Stav Shaffir Has a Suggestion: 'Occupy Zionism'

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Labor Knesset Member Stav Shaffir addresses the 2015 J Street Conference. Credit: Gili Getz

Because of her passion, because of her sharp tongue, because of her proven record of political activism, because of her David vs. Goliath skirmishes in the Knesset Finance Committee, because of her three-minute “Who is a Zionist” Knesset speech that became a viral sensation, because of her spectacular mane of red hair and because, like Anne of Green Gables, “her temper matches her hair," Stav Shaffir is already a superstar in the Israeli left. After this week’s J Street Conference, one can safely say that she’s a big shot in the American Jewish left as well.

Several leftist MKs managed to make it to the J Street Conference, despite last week’s elections, and all were received graciously and warmly. But only the charismatic Shaffir was covered with the pixie dust of success and enveloped by the allure of celebrity, generating unabashed enthusiasm and excitement, especially among the younger set, whenever she took to the stage.

So it was only fitting that after her well-received speech at the J Street plenum this week, Shaffir went to Capitol Hill to meet another fearless warrior and leftist-liberal hero – Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Though one is a 65-year-old former Harvard Law professor from Oklahoma who is frequently mentioned as a potential presidential candidate and the other is a 29-year-old former social activist from Netanya who is still the Knesset’s youngest member, the two women share a reputation for telling it straight while fighting powerful and sinister political and economic forces, and both enjoy a fierce fan base that is unique in their countries’ politics.

Shaffir, whose electric reception at J Street was boosted by the fact that she hadn’t been expected to attend at all, gave her audience of Israeli government critics the kind of red meat they were craving for: “The vision from the right,” she said, “is one in which the enemy is always at the gate and the fifth column is always inside. It is a vision of a constant battle against, demons, real or imagined. It is a land of corruption, despair and defeat.”

Her “Zionist Dream”, on the other hand, is tailor made for liberal Diaspora audiences: to have an Israel that celebrates diversity, where tolerance is not a weakness, where the poor are treated with compassion, minorities with respect, women and gay people and Reform Jews with equality under the law. And “above all we want an Israel that does not control millions of Palestinians.” It is just the right mix of social advocacy, Tikkun Olam, Zionism and support for Palestinian independence that speaks to the heart of J Street’s beliefs.

She wants to forge a “strategic alliance” with American friends and supporters. “We must connect them by creating a very clear vision where Israel must go,” Shaffir told Haaretz on Tuesday. “We can’t accept a situation in which where has a negative connotation. We must occupy Zionism and reclaim it.”

She could not get a free moment at the J Street Conference, constantly accosted by fans, both young and new, itching for her to become prime minister, right here and right now. Although J Street has been fostering Shaffir and other politicians for several years, it took her famous “Zionist rant” in the Knesset, her spectacular second place finish in the Labor Party primaries, the perception that the Zionist Union was missing some fervor at the top and the despair delivered by last week’s election results to elevate Shaffir to savior status this week. Her fans want her to talk to Benjamin Netanyahu’s government with the same energy and passion with which she famously told Naftali Bennett what Zionism was all about.

She says that her three-minute YouTube sensation was completely unplanned and unscripted. “I was upset by Bennett’s attacks and went up to speak before an empty Knesset, so I was surprised by how far and wide the video was circulated, with over a million views in Israel. People in Israel felt they needed some defense: They are good law abiding Zionist citizens, yet they are being called anti-Zionists in order to delegitimize their views.”

Shaffir, whose decision to join the protests of Women of the Wall exposed their protests to many unaware Israelis, says that in order to maintain ties with the younger generation of American Jews, Israeli must become more pluralistic and break the monopoly of Orthodox Jewry. But like in all other areas of life, “the right wing only knows how to scare people, and the only way it knows how to deal with threats is to maintain the status quo.”

She accuses Netanyahu of putting American Jews – “our brothers and sisters” – in an impossible position in which they are asked to choose between your love for Israel and your loyalty to the United States.” But she was happy to come and speak to her enthusiastic crowd at J Street, because “all they hear is Bibi, Bibi and Bibi, and I was glad to bring them the voice of the real Israeli left.” For now, at least, liberal American Jews, especially younger ones, seem eager to sit up and listen. 

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