Last Wednesday, April 13, local members of the Jewish community filled the sanctuary at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills to listen to former social protest leader and current Zionist Union MK Stav Shaffir. The event, hosted by J Street Los Angeles, focused on Shaffir’s involvement in the economic protests and sit-ins in early 2011, her decision to make the transition from activism to politics, her time spent fighting corruption as a member of the Finance committee and chair of a new transparency committee, as well as the necessity to reach a two-state settlement with the Palestinians both to protect Israel’s security and to fight BDS.
A recurring theme in her speech was the necessity to get the youth involved in politics. In one anecdote from her time as an activist, she recounted how those she met who were over the age of forty told her to get involved in politics, as that is where change happens. By contrast, those under forty begged her not to go into politics, as she would be wasting her time: in their eyes, the Knesset was where change went to die. Shaffir made a connection between this cynicism and the transfer of power from left to right in Israel, with the election of Begin as Israel’s first Likud Prime Minister about forty years ago, and that this distrust in the political system exacerbated political problems, both regarding and independent of the Palestinian conflict.
Shaffir also described in great detail the corruption endemic to the Finance Committee. She described how during her first year on the committee, she was called back to work during the Knesset vacation to approve a modified budget which had not been reviewed by the committee at large. Studying this budget, she uncovered a steady stream of money amounting to tens of billions of shekels (billions of US dollars) funneled away from the general budget, and used to fund pet projects, in particular those related to the settlement enterprise.
After the main event, Shaffir met with Jewish students from Los Angeles universities, including UCLA, USC and Pomona College. Seven UCLA students took part in the closed meeting, including junior Gil Bar-Or and sophomore Brad Fingard, from J Street U, who moderated the discussion and fielded questions from participants. Shaffir reiterated her message that the youth cannot turn their backs on politics, and praised the work J Street does in strengthening the progressive pro-Israel camp.
According to Fingard, “Stav’s commitment to transparency, pragmatism and progressive values give me hope that both the future of Israeli and politics have at least a bit of hope.” In addition, he noted that much of her speech, with its focus on economic injustice and inequality reminded him of the campaign of American Senator Bernie Sanders’ emphasis on similar issues regarding the American income gap. Nevertheless, he responded less positively to Shaffir’s belief that these issues can best be tackled politically from within the Labor party itself, conceding that this belief “did not inspire hope for [him] personally.”
Shaffir’s visit was part of a two-fold mission: to reconnect disillusioned young, predominantly left-wing Jews with Israel and Zionism, and to strengthen the progressive Zionist community in LA in general. Nevertheless, considering the speaker’s prestige, turnout of UCLA students was considered disappointingly low compared to J Street UCLA’s expectations. Taking into account that the event took place off campus, it suggests that the appetite for political discourse in the UCLA Jewish community remains relatively low, particularly when that discourse is left-of-center and the group organizing it is J Street. Regardless, it remains evident that the goal of a strong progressive and left-wing presence within the Jewich community here remains elusive.