Rebel leader who took her protest into the Knesset

“I couldn’t trust politicians” — Stav Shaffir, the youngest-ever female MK (Photo: Flash 90)

“I couldn’t trust politicians” — Stav Shaffir, the youngest-ever female MK (Photo: Flash 90)

With her youth, bright-red hair and eloquent idealism, Stav Shaffir makes a striking symbol of resistance.

But there is much more to the 27-year-old than iconoclasm. As one of the leaders of Israel’s social-protest movement, she helped bring more than 500,000 on to the streets in 2011 to demonstrate against the government’s social and economic policies. And now, as a member of the Knesset, she comes with an enviable grass-roots mandate.

Against the advice of some of her fellow protest leaders, Ms Shaffir ran for election on the Labour list, and was voted into to the Knesset in January, the youngest-ever female MK.

For all the expectations that now surround her, Ms Shaffir, who was in Britain earlier this month to meet Labour MPs and talk to social-justice groups, is relaxed and, unusually for a political young-gun, does not speak only in terms of certainties.

Young Israelis are now thinking: we fight for this place, why can’t it care for us?

Sipping on her cappuccino, she says it was not always clear to her that the aims of the protesters could be realised through politics. “I couldn’t trust politicians, and I wasn’t sure what to do as the social protests began to lose momentum,” she says.

At the same time, it was her proximity to Israel’s disillusioned generation that made her a recruitment target for politicians: “Whenever heads of parties asked me to join them, I said no, for about a year. We had much more influence on the streets.”

So how did a leader of a movement that opposes the political system decide to join the “other side”?

The shift was democratic: “We took the social movement on a tour and asked people what I should do. People over 35 said: you have to go into politics. Under-35s said: never get into politics.

“From that, I realised that I had to go into politics. Young people had become so sick of the system, and it needed to be changed.”

For observers, the “system” that was the focus of protest movement’s anger appeared to be economic. For Ms Shaffir, however, high rents and food prices are a symptom of a bigger problem: the Zionist “social contract” has been lost.

“The social movement was about the gap between the legend of Israel and reality. You grow up, you are supposed to become independent. Suddenly you see you can’t. You can’t buy a house. You work during your degree and it takes five years. Young Israelis are thinking: ‘we fight for this place, why can’t it take care of us?’,” she says.

One criticism is that, while Ms Shaffir has good ideas about how money should be spent — on free education and cheaper housing, for example — she has few proposals on how to generate the money to pay for it. She says that a bigger welfare state is possible because, “Israel is in a good financial position”, but dismisses the open market mechanisms that have helped make Israel competitive and wealthy.

Ms Shaffir is, however, focused on the welfare of the many and, with Israel ranked near the top of the OECD table for income inequality, the Jewish state has a clear need for her arguments.

The MK wants to restore faith in a political culture too often mired in corruption and nepotism, and she is a beacon for that process of renewal. Unusually for a politician, she has publicised her net worth (NIS 75,000) and, during the election, she encouraged young people to set up tents near polling stations in order to generate excitement around the electoral process.

Neither a typical MK nor a typical activist, Ms Shaffir seamlessly inhabits the two worlds — those of the establishment and the outsiders — that she is trying to bring them back together. She still shares with three friends the same Jaffa apartment (rent: NIS 1970) that she lived in before she got elected. How does she straddle the two aspects of her life? “There is only one world,” she says.

Last updated: 9:13am, April 19 2013