Occupy Zionism! Stav Shaffir on the new politics of patriotism and protest

Stav Shaffir was in conversation with Alan Johnson of 'Fathom: for a deeper understanding of Israel and the region'

Stav Shaffir was a leader of the Israeli social protest movement in 2011 and 2012. She was elected to the Knesset in 2013 on the Labour Party list

The social protest movement is patriotic, seeking to ‘occupy Zionism’ by completing the founders dream of a country of security, equality and democracy.

Stav Shaffir was in conversation with Alan Johnson, editor of ‘Fathom: for a deeper understanding of Israel and the region

 The Zionist dream has not been completed

In Israel when we commemorate Holocaust Day, an alarm sounds and everyone stops their cars and stands for a minute to remember what happened. Holocaust survivors in Israel today are over 70, and these are probably the last years that we will have the honour of living together with people who survived and immigrated to Israel and established the country. And because Israel is one of the only countries in the world where the pioneers and the founders of the country walk with us on the same streets, the memory of what happened is very much alive.

But this memory has positive and negative consequences. It can lead many to think that the Zionist dream is already accomplished because we have Israel. But as a young person, I have never felt that the Zionist dream has been completed for two reasons – Israelis are neither fully secure nor equal.

We still live our lives as if tomorrow might be the last day. It is not something we say to each other, but we plan for our future as if there is no future – as if we are still just surviving. When I entered the Knesset as a newly elected member in February, I asked ‘where are all the plans?’ We are debating the budget for 2013-14. We have a two year budget, which is a ridiculous and antidemocratic way of making a budget. But what are the results that we want from this budget? Where do we want Israel’s economy to be in ten years? Where do we want Israel’s society to be in 20 years? We need to understand that we are here to stay. This is our home and we have to plan for climate change, find a solution to the conflict, and create – sooner rather than later – a more just economy. That we are not doing this currently is part of the Israeli psychology we have to change.

The protest movement was about Israel not housing

Our generation wants that strong society, secure and equal. The protest movement of 2011 was not about housing; it was really about the kind of home we wanted Israel to be. The contract that people have with their government varies from country to country, and ours is particularly strong because at eighteen we fight for the country and we are educated from an early age to know that we are going to hold a gun and protect our country. And we do not serve in an army that doesn’t experience conflict; during my military service I was a soldier during the disengagement from Gaza and the Second Lebanon War.

The fact that we have not solved the conflict makes us insecure. Our demography is going to create a disaster – and during our lifetime. Many people think that solving the conflict is doing a favour to the Palestinians, but it is in our interests. The land is less important to my generation than protecting our society and our Jewish home. If we want Israel to remain a Jewish homeland and to remain a democracy, and if we want to have any plans for our children, we need to solve the problem, because in no time it will become unsolvable. And the alternative, ‘one state’, is not in our favour.

We went to the streets to ‘take back Zionism’

The Zionist dream will not be accomplished until Israel is equal as well as secure. So when we took to the streets to protest in 2011, we were really fighting for the Zionist dream of a free society with a strong democracy, free education for all, healthcare regardless of how much money you have – a welfare system. And not just of the Jewish people but everybody else. Zionism has been kidnapped by voices that are not ours, and that is why I often use the terms ‘occupy Zionism’ or ‘reclaim Zionism’, to say we still have to fight for security, democracy and defined borders.

That is also why we fight to protect the education system. Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, said in 1949 that we were going to have a free education system for all from the age of six because education was the key to Israel’s future. Everybody told him that he was nuts! ‘We don’t have the money,’ they said, ‘and our security comes first’. Ben-Gurion replied: ‘Education is security. Education is the future.’ We need that attitude today. However, in the last 25 years, education has become a privilege, and the same goes for healthcare. Israel is now privatising things that nobody ever thought would be touched. Today, parts of our education system, including teachers, health-care in schools and school-programmes, have been privatised. Parts of the department for pre-army tests (which assesses people before their army service to determine which unit they are suited for) have been privatised. The national archive is being privatised now, which means everything from the Declaration of Independence to the gun that shot Rabin will be held privately. Even the natural resource that is the Dead Sea has been privatised!

Don’t boycott, engage!

The dream of a country that is secure and equal is not only ours here in Israel. When I travel, I meet a lot of young Jewish students and I see what they are going through. The way they can defend Israel is to protect the way it needs to be and not defend every action Israel takes. Many people outside of Israel feel that they don’t have the right to be a part of the planning of Israel’s future, but this is not true. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is a concern of the world, so everybody who cares should be involved. Yes, Israelis and Palestinians know what is best for them and know what it means to live there, but sometimes reflections from the outside can be very helpful in finding the solution.

Boycotts, however, are counter-productive. They don’t make Israelis afraid; they only give us a reason not to trust outsiders. And we don’t trust anybody anyway. Israelis walk with the feeling that the Holocaust might indeed ‘happen again’. Yet, if we are to create a future for our home we cannot feel threatened and boycotted. We have to feel secure and be convinced that we are no longer in Europe of the 1930s, but that the world is different now, and will be with us if we decide to take the positive path.

Israelis themselves need to be persuaded that peace is part of the initial idea of Israel. In this regard, during the protests we felt much closer to our grandparents’ generation than to our parents, who in many aspects talk to us in terms of some ‘American dream,’ and follow an individualist path. At our second demonstration there were a lot of old people who came and protested with us; some even older than our grandparents. There was one sign that I will never forget, held by a person who was in his nineties. He stood in the middle of hundreds of thousands of protesters with a hand-made sign: ‘In 1948 I came to build this country, now I am here on the streets to build it again.’

This article is reproduced from the forthcoming issue of Fathom: for a deeper understanding of Israel and the region with the permission of the editors. Fathom 3 is launched tomorrow and includes an interview with Michael Walzer about the Jewish political tradition, OneVoice on the new Knesset, Eve Garrard on the ‘pleasures of antisemitism’, Alexander Yakobson on opinion among Israeli Arabs and a video interview with Dror Moreh, director of The Gatekeepers. Download the free app for your iPad or iPhone here.

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