The past month in Israel has been particularly jolting. A bill that would have the effect of exempting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from paying taxes on a number of his personal assets cleared a key first vote in the Knesset. Then came the enactment of a law restricting male same-sex couples’ ability to hire surrogates. On July 19 the Knesset finalized the controversial nation-state law. The same week, law enforcement questioned a Conservative-movement rabbi for conducting wedding ceremonies outside of the chief rabbinate’s auspices. In the space of a few days, the Knesset had legitimated corruption, homophobia, and a crude conception of nationalism, while the state demonstrated its apparent contempt for religious pluralism.
Still, it is almost impossible to feel pessimistic about anything whatsoever when sitting in an outdoor cafe off of a leafy square in north Tel Aviv in late July—especially when Stav Shaffir is across the table.
“What they’re doing is the exact opposite of what the Zionist dream was,” she said of the nation-state law. “The nationality bill is a shame and it actually says that the government today in Israel is not willing to sign the Declaration of Independence of Ben-Gurion in 1948. … In order to continue that spin of constantly inventing internal traitors and trying to scare the public and scare everybody who’s against them, they come up with this kind of bill that’s very destructive to everything that Israel needs.” The law passed, Shaffir said, “because of the cowards inside the government.” In her view, members of the coalition whose stated principles ran counter to the nation-state bill voted with Netanyahu out of fear, including a party she called out by name. “Some people who were part of our camp, at least in what they declare to the public like [Moshe] Kahlon’s party, are too afraid to fight for what they believe in.”
Yet Shaffir also believes that the past few weeks are a Pyrrhic victory for a prime minister who is weaker and more isolated than he appears. “When you look at the seats and how politics in Israel work you can see that he doesn’t have a majority at all,” she explained. “He has a quarter of the votes.”
In 2013, the then-27-year-old Shaffir, a prominent leader of the protests against the high cost of living that gripped Israel during the summer of 2011, became the youngest woman ever elected to the Knesset. (Shaffir is fourth on the Knesset list for the Zionist Union, the Knesset’s largest opposition party, four spots ahead of former Defense Minister Amir Peretz.) When Israelis inevitably look for non-retreads to lead them, Shaffir is likely to be one of the people they’ll eventually turn to. “The status quo with the Palestinians is not really stability,” she said. “It’s a status quo of terror, and the longer it takes for us to make a decision the worse position we’ll be in,” Shaffir added, treading cautiously on the hallowed ground of national security. She was similarly careful when invited to talk about the potential dangers of Netanyahu’s closeness with Donald Trump: “It’s one of the missions for every Israeli government to be as close as possible to every American president who’s serving,” she replied.
Mid-interview, Shaffir got up to greet a lanky, black-haired woman. “That’s one of the inventors of Waze,” she pointed out.
On one of the other lacerating issues of the moment, Shaffir made a point of proving just how far she’s gone in living her own disdain for the status quo. “I’ll show you something,” she said when the conversation turned to the Conservative rabbi’s police questioning. She pulled up a photo on her phone where she stood between a smartly dressed couple on a late afternoon beach, with well-wishers fanned out on either side. “I’m the rabbi here,” she declared with a smile. Although I asked a couple of times, she didn’t say exactly where “here” was—marriages performed by someone other than a rabbinate-sanctioned Orthodox rabbi aren’t legally recognized in Israel and are in fact prohibited under a 2013 law that has never actually been enforced before. Certainly the beach was not unlike many that I’ve visited in Israel. Could it have been in Cyprus? I guess anything’s possible. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Shaffir said. The picture showed “a couple who asked me to marry them because they wanted to marry according to the Jewish tradition but in a way that feels for them like they own it. It’s very personal. It’s one of the most exciting things. When I marry couples I think it’s the only time where my hands are literally shaking. I have so much respect for this very special moment.”
Shaffir claimed that discontent over the religious authorities’ stranglehold on marriage was an underlying source of discontent for the estimated 100,000 Israelis who had demonstrated against the surrogacy law earlier in the week. “To feel that so many people can’t go for this moment legally in Israel although they’re Israelis, they’re Jewish, they feel the same connection to this country and to our religion as those who hold the power—that’s exactly the thing that made people come to the streets.”
Shaffir’s willingness to openly tout her career as a black-market marriage officiant shows that on some level the state itself recognizes the absurdity of outlawing Jewish weddings. But there’s nothing saying that these kinds of dissonances—which are especially common in a religiously informed parliamentary system that is barely 70 years old and doesn’t have a written constitution to guide it—will resolve themselves into a more liberal policy. Quite the opposite: As the last month showed, the big questions in Israeli political life are in play at either end of the spectrum. Luckily, Shaffir pointed out that there’s one prominent example of how small numbers of highly organized Israelis can bend the entire system to their agenda, even if it’s one from which left-leaning politicians usually don’t draw inspiration: The settlement movement. “They maximize their effect as citizens,” Shaffir said. “They decided that they’re going to get into every political position possible, they run many, many people for public office, they get many more people into public service.”
The center left, unlike the settlers and the broader national-religious camp, had stopped believing they could change the country’s direction. “Tel Aviv is half a million people,” Shaffir said. “They hold and lead the country economically. The highest percentage of soldiers who do reserve service is here. But they feel like they have less influence on the government. … The liberal camp lost its voice politically and fell into the trap that we’re losing and there is no way to win this.”
While Shaffir was tactful in describing what the path to victory would look like, she was adamant that the Israeli system would flush out Netanyahu and everything she believes him to represent. “He’s just a very small episode in Israel’s history,” Shaffir said. The message of the past month was that none of the country’s battles is over yet: “Despair is not a political strategy.”
It isn’t an option for American Jews, either, Shaffir stressed. “One of the things that I wish for American Jews to understand, especially for the American liberal democratic camp of American Jews, is the amount of influence that the extreme right wing in Israel is getting from the American right,” she said. “Much of the funding for extremist politicians here in our government comes from the right in America.”
By contrast, she continued, Americans on the left often seem alienated or demoralized, something that actually plays to the right’s advantage—for instance, a growing openness toward the boycott movement is “actually helping Netanyahu to push more Israelis to the right” by proving that the international community is hostile to the country. A frequent speaker on college campuses in the United States, she often “hear[s] people saying how distant they are from Israel or I see how unfamiliar they are with the political discussions inside Israel,” Shaffir said. The young people that she meets in America often “don’t know the left-wing Israel. They don’t know that it exists.”
Shaffir hinted that liberal Jews in America are in danger of duplicating the Israeli center’s paralysis, and of falling victim to the idea that the country is incapable of moving in a different direction. “The way to help Israel,” she concluded, is to “strengthen the center-left camp and make very very clear to every American that in Israel there is a discussion over what our future should be and that it’s not only Netanyahu,” Shaffir said. “He is not the only option in this discussion. He is the loudest, definitely. But half the country wants something else.”
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