Howa­wom­an­i­na­tent be­came Is­rael’s top story

A month ago, Daphni Leef be­gan a protest against hous­ing costs. Now, even the Prime Min­is­ter is lis­ten­ing

The Jewish Chronicle - - Features - BY NATHAN JEFFAY

UNTILRECENTLYno­body­had­heard of Daphni Leef. Now, ev­ery­body in Is­rael knows the 25-year-old’s face and her cause. Just a few weeks ago, Leef was wait­ing ta­bles. Now, her sched­ule has be­come such that she can­not help keep­ing peo­ple wait­ing. This in­ter­view was meant to take place at 11am but did not start un­til 5pm. Among things that might have dis­tracted her was the small mat­ter of Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu putting ev­ery­thing on hold to re­spond to her de­mands.

Even af­ter the in­ter­view started, we were in­ter­rupted by well-wish­ers, de­lighted to see her in the flesh sitting out­side a Tel Aviv café. A young man wanted a hug; a lit­tle old lady wanted to have her pic­ture taken with Leef. And upon hear­ing her voice a blind woman halted her guide dog and chat­ted ex­cit­edly.

So what did Leef do to bring her such na­tional at­ten­tion? She got chucked out of her flat. And then wrote on Face­book. Just over a month ago she was told that she needed to leave her Tel Aviv apart­ment be­cause the build­ing was slated for rede­vel­op­ment. She started look­ing for a new home, and was shocked to find how ex­pen­sive rents had be­come.

“I called up a friend and said, ‘I’m set­ting up a tent’,” she re­calls. “He said I should calm down.” But she did not calm down — in­stead she opened a Face­book “event”, invit­ing peo­ple to erect tents in cen­tral Tel Aviv to protest against high hous­ing prices.

It quickly gained mo­men­tum, and, a month later, there are 350 tents in Tel Aviv’s “tent city” where she lives, and more than 500 tents in spin-off demon­stra­tions else­where in the coun­try. The cam­paign is dom­i­nat­ing the news. A poll by Haaretz sug­gests that some 87 per cent of Is­raelis are be­hind it. A fort­night ago 30,000 peo­ple marched in Tel Aviv in sup­port.

“It’s hi­lar­i­ous,” says Leef when asked about her un­ex­pected rise to star­dom. “I keep think­ing I’m go­ing to wake up and it will all be over.”

It is easy to see why Is­rael has fallen in love with Leef. Her back­ground is un­re­mark­able — she grew up in sec­u­lar Jerusalem fam­ily then moved to Tel Aviv at 19, stud­ied film at univer­sity and worked in var­i­ous jobs, most re­cently wait­ing ta­bles and video edit­ing. She does not have the pol­ished looks of celebri­ties or the sleek style of Knes­set mem­bers. She scrounges a cig­a­rette from a passer by and mur­murs about how much she hates be­ing late. In this nation of power para­pher­na­lia there is no brief­case or a clipboard by her side, just a hand­bag with bits of pa­per over­flow­ing. But when she talks, she has a knack for sum­ming up the nation’s gripes.

“I felt for a long time that I had lost my voice and I feel that I am get­ting it back. The coun­try and state should work for me, not me for them,” she says of the protests.

She be­came “ap­a­thetic” a b o u t p o l i - t i c s i n her teens be­liev­ing the par­ties all of­fered “the same bull***”. But her protest tran­scends pol­i­tics, she ar­gues. “Hav­ing a roof over your head is such a ba­sic need that solv­ing to­day’s prob­lem is for ev­ery­one — it’s not a right-wing, left-wing is­sue,” she says.

De­spite her youth, Leef fights for the frus­tra­tions of other age groups, not just the young. She re­jected Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu’s re­sponse to the protests be­cause she thought it would not ben­e­fit so­ci­ety as a whole, even though it is clear that his plan will help stu­dents, dis­charged sol­diers and young couples. “I just want to know that when my par­ents grow old they can do so in good con­di­tions,” she says.

With her like­abil­ity, elo­quence, too-good-to-be-true story, one can­not help but won­der if the cam­paign has been more chore­ographed than it seems. But she dis­misses this idea as non­sense. “It has all been com­pletely spon­ta­neous,” she in­sists. “I’m not some ac­tivist or part of a party which has some agenda.”

Leef is keen to main­tain the in­de­pen­dent feel of her cam­paign. She turned down the nu­mer­ous politi­cians who wanted to ad­dress her rally, in­sist­ing that the cam­paign will not be­come associated with one po­lit­i­cal party or an­other. She is “very pro­tec­tive of the fact that ev­ery­body should feel that it is ac­ces­si­ble”. What is bring­ing so many peo­ple out? She sees it — and many an­a­lysts agree with her — as an out­pour­ing of na­tional frus­tra­tion about the dis­par­ity be­tween salaries and the cost of liv­ing in Is­rael, not only about the hous­ing sit­u­a­tion. She feels the cam­paign is an “all or noth­ing” re­sults-driven strug­gle for change — but it is also a ther­a­peu­tic process for the count r y. “There are 6 0-y e a r - o l d men who f o u g h t wars comi ng to me say­ing they have never felt so strong as at this protest. This is a kind of ther­apy.”

Some­times her new­found role gets to her head a lit­tle. “Peo­ple who have mort­gages don’t have any lever­age to dream,” Leef states with au­thor­ity in one of her bite-sized pieces of wis­dom, chang­ing topic when asked if she has ever had a mort­gage (she has not). She does not claim to un­der­stand all the com­pli­cated eco­nom­ics re­lated to hous­ing prices but she does “un­der­stand how com­plex it is”. She is in for the long haul, say­ing she will “sac­ri­fice years” and carry on cam­paign­ing “till ev­ery­one around me says ‘I’m happy’.”

The ques­tion of how she will make a liv­ing is left open — she does not like the idea of form­ing an or­gan­i­sa­tion to rep­re­sent her cause, say­ing she wants to keep it in­for­mal. And de­spite the fact that she seems to have a ready-made ca­reer in pub­lic life, this route does not ap­peal — she wants to fol­low her long­stand­ing ca­reer plan and make films in­stead. “I’m not a politi­cian, I’m just a good

Sa­mar­i­tan,” she says.


More than 350 peo­ple are now liv­ing in Tel Aviv’s tented city af­ter Daphni Leef in­vited fel­low Is­raelis to join her protest on Face­book


Daphni Leef: “all or noth­ing”

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