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‘The Person Who Sparks the Movement and Ends Up With a Broken Heart’

In 2011, Tel Aviv’s Daphni Leef helped ignite the J14 movement for social change. She looks back at what went wrong.

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Israeli policemen detain tent protest initiator Daphni Leef during a renewed social justice demonstration on Rothschild Boulevard, in Tel Aviv, on June 22, 2012. (Roni Schutzer/AFP/Getty Images)
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It was the summer of 2011 when Daphni Leef’s landlord informed her that the Tel Aviv building she’d been living in was about to undergo renovations. Leef, then 25, would have to leave her apartment. Scanning the rental ads, she saw that prices had risen dramatically. Rather than engage in the extreme sport that is Tel Aviv apartment-hunting only to wallow in debt, she set up a Facebook event titled “Emergency, take a tent and take a stand.” It was Thursday, July 14, when Leef pitched her tent at the center of Rothschild Boulevard in downtown Tel Aviv.

In a matter of days, Rothschild was to become a tent city, full of people similarly fed up with the cost of living. In a matter of weeks, dozens more tent sites were to sprout up across Israel, as hundreds of thousands rallied for the cause. Leef was fast becoming one of the most famous women in the country, and the J14 social justice protest movement that forever changed the face of Israeli society was born. Early this past June, with the three-year anniversary of the movement’s inception approaching, I met with Leef to hear her reflections on the protests: why they started, what they’d changed, and what remained to be done. Soon after we spoke, three young Israelis were kidnapped and murdered, sparking the latest iteration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that was to reach its peak with the recent operation in Gaza. Socioeconomic issues were quickly relegated to the back of the newspapers; J14’s anniversary came and went with nary a mention. Yet despite the urgency inherent in these developments, the socioeconomic challenges facing Israel will remain long after the dust will have settled on Operation Protective Edge.

“It started from the gut,” Leef told me. In 2011, she was scraping together a living as a freelance video editor. “I took a bird’s eye view of my life and said to myself, this is it, it’s not getting any better: renting an apartment, chasing after my next job, chasing paychecks because I’m never paid on time, drifting away from the reasons I went to film school.” She had been sold the American dream, she said. “But this place is much smaller. We live in Israel, this is the Middle East. It dawned on me that if I did as I was told: went to school, worked hard—I’m talking 10-hour days, six or seven days a week, with very little leisure time—I just wasn’t going to make ends meet. I was making 7,000 shekels gross [about $2050], and since the money wasn’t coming in on time, my overdraft would grow and I was in debt.” Moving out of the expensive Tel Aviv metropolitan area was out of the question, she said, because that’s where the jobs were. “That means paying at least 2,800-3,000 shekels for a room. You spend half your salary on rent, even before you factor in utilities and taxes.”

I met Daphni Leef at a café in Jaffa. The rising rental costs that sparked her protest have driven many to the increasingly gentrified neighborhoods just south of Tel Aviv proper, where she now lives. The issues she raised three years ago have not gone away, she told me. “It’s only getting worse. Prices are going up, but salaries have stayed the same. The people who took to the streets, young couples with children, were often making 12,000-13,0000 shekels together at best.” It’s a reality at odds with Israel’s public relations efforts abroad, she said. “This country is constantly fighting to convince the world of its legitimacy, but at the same time it sends out a clear message to its own young people: You won’t be able to take root here, you can’t establish a home. It takes 150 monthly salaries to buy an apartment. Seventy percent of us are financially fragile. If something unexpected happens, say you have car trouble, you won’t have the money to deal with it.”

Leef is eager to combat one of the most prevalent criticisms of the J14 movement, namely that it was essentially led by spoiled brats from Tel Aviv, decidedly left-of-center in their politics, and that the Rothschild tent city was full of sushi-eaters and hookah-smokers. She rattled off the statistics: “There were 10 rallies, held week after week over the summer of 2011. Almost 90 tent sites across the country. Eighty-seven percent of the public supported us. It wasn’t some local Tel Aviv thing.”

The first rally took place outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on July 23, nine days after Leef first pitched her tent. Thirty thousand people showed up. “It was such a shock,” she said. “Where did they all come from? People finally understood that they weren’t alone with their problems in their heads. Like a battered woman coming to a support group and finally understanding that it isn’t her fault.” After participating in a Jerusalem rally in early August, novelist David Grossman wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth of the initial “embarrassment of someone unaccustomed to letting his voice be heard, afraid to cry out, and yell out in a chorus. … But after a few steps something happens, enters the blood. The rhythm, the momentum, the togetherness. Not a threatening, faceless ‘togetherness,’ but a heterogeneous togetherness, mosaic-like and untidy, familial, and with a strong sense of—here, we’re doing the right thing, finally doing the right thing. And then the bewilderment sets in—where were we until now? How did we let this happen?”

The protests were part of a global movement, Leef said: the Arab Spring, the 99% movement, Occupy. The YouTube videos of other protests were an inspiration. “I felt I understood what they were talking about,” she said. “Suddenly a mass of people announces: ‘We are the majority.’ Most people aren’t parliament members, or control huge corporations. I think that if you look at what’s happening around the world, young people everywhere are starting to doubt their governments and the mainstream media, because suddenly there are more tools to learn about what’s happening. It’s caused a big rupture. We’re not unique. It’s happening around the world, and it is generational: My generation has less money than its parents, and that creates a different understanding. You need to cooperate or else you don’t stand a chance. The fact that Israel is a small place, where everyone knows everyone, means that things can change faster here. But the change has to be global, because the problems are global.”

The numbers kept growing. A series of rallies held simultaneously on Sept. 3 at Tel Aviv’s largest plaza, Kikar Hamedina, and across the country—billed as the “Million Man March”—drew half a million, Leef said, although other reports suggest a slightly smaller number. Either way, Leef found herself addressing hundreds of thousands of protesters—something of a stretch for a young woman who, while quite sociable, said she had gone to film school planning to remain firmly behind the camera. Few clues from Leef’s biography hint at the role she was to play. She had certainly never engaged in activism before, political or otherwise.

***

Born in Jerusalem to Tanya, a manager at Israel’s National Insurance, and Inam, a composer and head of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, she was named for Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. Leef came of age in the bad years of the Second Intifada, and she still rarely rides buses. When she was 16 her family moved to Kfar Shmaryahu, north of Tel Aviv, and she majored in film at a high school in nearby Ramat Hasharon. Exempt from military service due to her epilepsy, she studied film at Tel Aviv University and began taking freelance editing jobs. Her last gig, ironically, was on a lifestyle show showcasing classy apartment renovations. But then came July 14, and stardom. Her name became synonymous with the protests. She was even the subject of a song by the popular alt-rock rock group Girafot.

I asked Asher Schechter what made Daphni Leef so special. Schechter works for The Marker, a business newspaper published by Haaretz that takes a crusader-like approach to exposing the structural failures inherent in Israel’s economy, and for whom the 2011 protests served as a sharp clarion call. He was also an active participant in the protests and, as its resident chronicler, the author of Rothschild: The Story of a Protest Movement. “Daphni Leef was cast in a very ungrateful role, that of the person who sparks the movement and ends up with a broken heart,” he said. “It happened to her because she was perfect for the role. She was charismatic, and people saw themselves in her. I certainly did. She attracted the younger generation that turned Rothschild into the best party in town. Everything that happened afterwards didn’t have much to do with her. From the start she had no real sway on what happened, because most of the movement’s other leaders were more dominant than she was. But half a million people would never have shown up to a rally without her. There was something pure and innocent about her. People knew she wasn’t trying to fool them, that she had integrity.” Almost three years later, Leef said she’s still processing the experience. “I didn’t take to the streets because I wanted that attention, and I wasn’t prepared for it. I’d never wanted to be at the front of something before. But I think that every person, if you really push their buttons, can rise to the occasion.”

After the mega-rallies, the feeling was that change was nigh: The government could no longer ignore J14. But according to Leef, that’s exactly what happened. One by one, the municipalities cleared the tent sites, often forcefully, refusing to let them stay for the winter. The Trajtenberg Committee, an expert commission established by the government in response to the protests, ostensibly to make recommendations, came and went. Leef is adamant that the committee had no teeth and was used to dissolve the J14 agenda. An official website set up to track the implementation of the Trajtenberg recommendations lies dormant, and at last count (in late 2012), only 27 of 139 recommendations had been executed. Schechter posits that the protests didn’t take advantage of their initial momentum. “Netanyahu had been terrified that the leaders of the movement would call for his resignation and that that would echo with the public, and so he was willing to make a lot of concessions at first,” he said. But by early August, the massive public support became stifling, and Leef and company were careful not to make any radical demands. “[They] were burdened with the full weight of ‘national responsibility,’ and didn’t really make a move to challenge Netanyahu. Once he saw that that was the case, he stopped sweating and withdrew his invitation to meet with them. He knew it was essentially over and that he’d won.”

The summer of 2012 brought new protests, but little of the previous summer’s widespread public support. When Leef returned to Rothschild with her tent on June 22, 2012, the police were waiting; Leef and 11 others were forcefully arrested; charges were pressed against Leef and later dropped. Protests against the arrests were held the next day, and 89 more arrests were made during clashes with the police. On July 14, 20,000 people showed for an anniversary rally, a far cry from the half a million (but “a decent number after a long time had passed without rallies,” Leef said). That rally became infamous, though, for another reason: Moshe Silman, formerly an activist at the 2011 Haifa tent site, now bankrupt and in poor health, set himself on fire at the rally. As he burned, he scattered flyers blaming Netanyahu and finance minister Yuval Steinitz for his plight. Silman died six days later from his wounds.

The year 2013 brought with it some of the movement’s most dramatic consequences. The parliamentary elections held on Jan. 22 of that year had been the first to revolve almost exclusively around social issues. Parties targeted the young, disenfranchised middle-class voters who had led the protests. Of the 120 elected Knesset Members, 48 were fresh faces. In September of 2011, Shelly Yachimovitch had won the Labor party’s leadership, in no small part due to a strong social legislation record that had long predated J14. Although she had been careful to keep her distance from the movement, her win was a clear signal that Labor was shaping itself as a socially minded alternative to Netanyahu’s neoliberal Likud—forsaking its traditional peace-first agenda in the process. In November 2012, two of Leef’s peers from the J14 leadership, journalist Stav Shaffir and student union leader Itzik Shmuli, won top spots in Labor’s primaries and soon found themselves in the Knesset.

But the most dramatic effect on the 2013 elections seemed at first far less likely. Journalist Yair Lapid, who as a columnist had long been styling himself as the ultimate middle-class Israeli, managed to win 19 Knesset seats for his centrist Yesh Atid party on the promise that he would redirect his voters’ tax-money back to them, playing on the sentiment that the Israeli middle-class was busy subsidizing the rest of the country. After 18 months on the job as finance minister, Lapid is by now one of those elections’ colossal disappointments.

“The economy is only getting worse,” Leef said. “At the macro level, Israel might be very good at plugging the holes in the dam, and so it might look great from the outside. And maybe in comparison to other places our situation is alright. But prices here are some of the highest in the world.” Still, she saw room for optimism. “The fact that the public voted in so many new Knesset members says something. Even though this government has been very cynical toward our demands, that’s still a good sign. I didn’t expect much of Yair Lapid, so he hasn’t disappointed me. But the fact that his voters are angry because they see that he’s been doing the opposite of what he promised to do—that’s what’s important. And in the end, we have a prime minister named Benjamin Netanyahu who hasn’t lived the life of a normal human being for a very long time. He doesn’t know what it’s like, stretching 100 shekels to buy a week’s worth of groceries. Netanyahu is an incredibly cynical prime minister. History will judge him, because he’s making our society collapse. He’s obviously a clever guy. If he were to use that cleverness to make things better here, it would all be different.”

Some 200,000 Israelis march in the center of Tel Aviv on August 6, 2011, demanding social justice and to pressure the government into reforms to ease living costs. (David Buimovitch/AFP/Getty Images)

If the political sphere has refused to budge in all but rhetoric, where did the J14 protests nonetheless make their mark? “Most Israelis would say that the effects have been limited, but in fact they’re huge. So huge that it’s difficult to gauge them,” said Asher Schechter. “These past three years have seen a total change in agendas, in how the public treats its prominent officials and businessmen. The public demands transparency, even of people in the running for jobs where the public has no formal say, like the governor of the Bank of Israel, or the presidency, where candidates were pressured into disclosing their holdings. Binyamin ‘Fuad’ Ben-Eliezer, one of the most important politicians in the country, had to drop out of the race because of this. People aren’t in the street anymore, and prices have only gone up. But when you look at the climate, you see that it’s completely changed.” The year 2011, said Schechter, was the big bang. “It didn’t bring down rental or food prices, but it created Israeli civil society, something that simply did not exist prior to summer 2011. The public had never seriously concerned itself with inequality or the cost of living. Today, it’s never been better informed. People know about our centralized economy, about tycoons and corporate tax. This hasn’t yet been translated into political reality, but it will.”

Today, Leef grants far fewer interviews and devotes most of her public appearances to speaking with young people. She’s happy with many of the grassroots initiatives her movement sparked. “Over the past three years, some 50,000 workers have joined unions, there are 600 new social organizations, lots of new co-ops,” she said. “For three years people have been fighting for their hope that things can get better. Things take time. I have to be optimistic. If I stop being optimistic, I’ll fall. The most important thing that happened to me personally is that I woke up to the fact that I’m Israeli. I was sick of other people deciding for me what that meant. The protest was an act of patriotism in many ways. This is my home. It’s where I was born, where my friends are, my family. Some of my friends have left the country, but I’m not going anywhere. The protest was people coming together to say, we live here, we want to talk about what it means to be Israeli.”

I asked Leef if all she’d been through hadn’t made her cynical. “No,” she said. “If anything, I’ve become less cynical. The world is such a cynical place, and my entire life I felt that having an open heart was a liability. But now I know that things have to change. We have to encourage open hearts. Sure, you get hurt, but if I can’t open my heart then I’ve given up.”

Leef ruled out politics very early on and was openly critical when it became clear that fellow J14 leaders (now Labor MKs) Shmuli and Shaffir planned on leveraging their social activism for political means. She was offered countless political platforms in the run-up to the 2013 elections—and turned them all down. “The protests aren’t my private property, this power isn’t mine. It’s its own thing. I’m very careful with the way I apply it,” she explained. “I had said I wasn’t going to run, and it would have been cynical of me to breach that trust.” Today, she’s changed her tone. “I no longer say ‘never.’ I can’t deny that politics are there. I think they need to change radically. I’m glad I didn’t run when I was pressured to, but running after you’ve built something with values that you can stand behind, with people you respect and trust, is different. These things take time.”

Leef has started work on a documentary that will tell the story of the protests and perhaps help her make sense of the blur that is the fateful summer of 2011. “It’s hard to take such a meaningful period and distill it,” she said. “I really can’t remember much, only moments. I remember that the first two weeks, before the rallies started were elating. It was a democracy lesson, how to create a space with others. The first weeks were the most innocent, the most naïve. Once it became big, and the media made some of us into heroes, it was strange, because the space itself was totally egalitarian, whether you were homeless or a med student—we all lived in tents. There was a sense of togetherness. Urban spaces are so alienating. People work all day and only see each other socially late at night at the bar. Suddenly people saw each other in the daylight, started talking with one another. It was amazing. We understood that we didn’t want to be apart, we wanted to be together. That was our strength. It was incredibly moving.”

When I first met Daphni Leef in June, she was working on several grassroots projects, including a “constitution of renters” that she hopes will bring about more protective legislation. More than anything, though, she had been testing the waters in the hope to renew the protests. The subsequent national security developments put a damper on that.

By the time we spoke again some weeks ago via Skype, Leef’s ever-cheery countenance had darkened considerably. Although the socioeconomic discourse in the Israeli media has been largely been replaced by the talking heads of retired generals, she maintains adamantly that the J14 movement, and the ideas behind it, are no less important when the country is at war. Perhaps they are more important now than ever before. Leef has been organizing volunteer groups to the rocket-stricken south of the country. “I’m so shocked by everything that’s going on, and feel so helpless. With so much death on both sides and with my friends on the front lines, I’m just helping out where I can, and it also keeps me sane,” she said. “But more than that, the war has direct implications on what daily life will look like the day after it ends. A whole lot of businesses are going to go bankrupt, a great many people will lose their livelihood.” She expressed her outrage with the members of Knesset who opted last week to take their scheduled three-month-long summer recess despite the raging combat, “while people are burying their kids and businesses are collapsing.”

Now is a time of soul searching, Leef told me. Though not traditionally religious, she planned on fasting this Tisha B’Av. “The protests were about unity, harmony, long-term planning, integrity, and compassion. About leadership that knows how to speak to the people, how to temper violence and lead by example,” she told me. I asked her if she recognized any of those values in today’s Israel. She managed a shred of optimism. “If you don’t read the papers, or the hateful Facebook comments, when you ignore the cynicism of politicians and just focus on the how people hurt, the trauma they’re going through just trying to preserve their daily routine under such extreme circumstances—there’s some light there.”

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‘The Person Who Sparks the Movement and Ends Up With a Broken Heart’

In 2011, Tel Aviv’s Daphni Leef helped ignite the J14 movement for social change. She looks back at what went wrong.