‘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.
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.”
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