Lessons From Israel's Youngest Lawmaker: Q&A With Stav Shaffir

On March 24, I had the distinct privilege of speaking alongside Stav Shaffir, the youngest-ever female member of the Knesset (Israel's parliament). We were both participating in a dinner program for The American Friends of the Yitzhak Rabin Center during which Richard L. Trumka, AFL-CIO President and Roger Smith, CEO, American Income and National Income Life Insurance, were honored in Yitzhak Rabin's name as part of the commemoration of the 20th anniversary since Rabin's assassination.

A political activist with fiery red hair and a powerful presence, 30-year-old Shaffir is clearly a force to be reckoned with in Israeli politics. She has no qualms about calling out Israel's leaders for corruption and misallocation of government funding, practices that have been apparently going on for decades. Today, she's on a mission to expose dishonesty and provide more transparency in government so that young people, those of her generation, will regain faith in their leaders and their government. She hopes to inspire her generation to abandon the twin evils of apathy and cynicism. As a leader of the social justice protests in 2011, she is ferociously committed to a new kind of Zionism - one that will transform the future of Israel and abandon the politics of exclusion:

"Real Zionism means taking care of the weakest members of society. Real Zionism is solidarity -- not only in battle, but also in the day-to-day. Looking after each other. That's what being Israeli is. That's what Zionism is: to take care of the future of Israel's citizens -- in hospitals, in schools, on roads, and in social welfare. That's Zionism, and you're destroying it."
- Stav Shaffir in a January 2015 address to the Knesset

With a personality that can move crowds, Shaffir will surely continue to be recognized for her unwavering commitment to reshaping the future of Israel.

Shaffir and I met again later in the month in Israel and I was able to get to know her even better. We spoke more about her aspirations, the current state of affairs in Israel and how the legacy of the late Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, continues to inspire both her and her generation- many of whom like her, we're very young (or yet to be born) when he was assassinated on November 4, 1995.

Please continue to read below for valuable excerpts of our conversation:

Me: As the youngest member of Knesset, can you provide some insight into Israel's youth movement and their identification with the Rabin legacy?

Stav Shaffir (Stav): My generation and I have had to deal with many corrupt, manipulative leaders since Rabin's assassination in 1995. We've had members of parliament, a prime minister and a president betray us, brought to court, sentenced or jailed. I think my generation and I view it as our responsibility to return Israel to a more peaceful state - one where politics are courageous, ideological, straightforward and connected to the people's needs.

Me: How will Israel's next generation change the future of Israel?

Stav: After Israel's summer of social protest (2011), we travelled the length of Israel asking thousands of people what they thought our direction as a movement should be. There was a clear divide: if people were over the age of 40 they thought we should go into politics. If they were under that age, they thought we should do anything but go into politics.

As a result, I realized that the contract between citizens and government has been damaged, with the government dismissing its responsibility towards the people. My generation and I view it as our main mission to return to a legacy of politics that is honest, transparent and truly dedicated to the people of Israel, and to encourage my generation to believe in politics as our way of taking responsibility for our communities and our lives.

Me: As one of the leaders of the 2011 Israeli Social Justice Protests - Israeli's largest protest ever - do you think there's a connection to the protest and the many initiatives undertaken during Rabin's second administration?

: Rabin's successful election campaign in 1992 promised to change national priorities. When he became Prime Minister, he had to confront an astronomical unemployment rate - nearly 12 percent of the work force. But after only two years in office, he turned this country around -- and 1994 was one of the best years for Israel's economy. Investment and production were high and the unemployment rate dropped to its lowest point in years, with 120,000 new work placements.

Rabin made cuts in much of the government's investment in settlements, and instead moved the money inside the Green Line and to Israel's periphery. He understood that the socio-economic gaps that the Israeli society was suffering were damaging not only to Israel's economy, but also to its strength as a culture.

Few remember how unequivocal Rabin was about the settlement budgets. In fact, during his campaign he promised to stop pouring huge sums of money into "political settlement." He knew that stopping these transfers to settlements and instead distributing that money in Israel proper, particularly in Israel's periphery, would lead to economic growth and create more jobs.

What was true then is true today. The money that goes to settlements is a bonus -- beyond their basic budget -- and it is money that is desperately needed for investment in communities of Israel's Negev and Galilee communities. These places are crying out for money, but don't have the luxury of an aggressive political lobby, as the settlers do.

Me: What do Yitzhak Rabin and his legacy mean to you personally?

Stav: I always reflect upon Rabin's many efforts to close the gaps in Israeli society and that's where I see myself following in his footsteps. Specifically, I want to fight to make the budget transparent, to prevent corruption and excessive investment in small, too-powerful sectors at the expense of the Israeli periphery and for equality of education, health care, and transportation across the country. As we go forward, we must remember what Rabin stood for: peace and prosperity.

Me: What specific changes are you planning to focus your attention on to help move the social and economic agenda of your party forward?

Stav: Over the last year, I've fought hard against the transfer of hundreds of millions of taxpayer shekels to unknown locations through the Finance Committee's secret channel. One of the big winners of this corrupt method has been the settlement enterprise - which has been given more than a billion shekels (approximately $262.5 million USD) over their original budget.

It's about time that the Israeli people, who put so much effort into our country, even risking our lives for the security of our nation - feel that we get an equal share and that we're an equal part of this wonderful community. Sadly, in the last four decades, Israel has become a leader in social and economic inequality gaps, one of the countries with the highest number of subcontracted workers in the western world (workers without social rights), and with more and more working families entering poverty.

This must stop, and we have ways of changing that - it takes political courage, which our government is unfortunately lacking. I will continue to dedicate all of my efforts to changing this reality and to work for an Israeli-economy that puts the human being at the center and one that develops strong communities, that replaces fear with creativity, and Netanyahu's politics of despair - with Rabin's politics of hope.

Me: What is your main message for Israeli citizens?

Stav: My central message to both Israelis and to those outside of Israel: we can and must demand equality of opportunity, access, and budget, for that is real democracy!