Dafni Leef 311.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
When Daphni Leef speaks at Limmud UK on Wednesday, how will her message be
received by British Jews? Will she meet a hero’s welcome, the cold shoulder or
indifference? One thing is certain: The leader of the social protest movement
that dominated the headlines in Israel this summer will need no
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Most participants at the Jewish educational confab, which
draws thousands each year, have heard or read about her exploits.
who follows Israel news – which from my experience is definitely the majority of
people in the British-Jewish community, regardless of political persuasions –
will absolutely know who she is and have at least a basic overview of ‘tent
protests,’” Limmud UK Programming chairwoman Amanda Lee wrote in an
It’s easy to forget that just six months ago Leef was a complete
unknown. Last summer the 25-year-old video editor was evicted from her apartment
in Tel Aviv. Unable to find reasonable accommodation in the city center on her
budget, she decided to pitch a tent on Rothschild Boulevard on July 14 to
protest the soaring cost of rent.
The response was
Aided by positive press coverage, the boulevard turned into
a tent city teeming with political activity. A movement, whose unofficial
leadership consisted of Leef, activist Stav Shafir, student union leader Itzik
Shmuly and a few others, emerged, drawing tens of thousands to rallies across
James Sevitt, a Jewish documentary filmmaker who lives in
London, was in Cairo when he first heard of the protests in Tel Aviv. He
traveled to Israel and filmed the rallies for five weeks, getting to know many
of its key figures personally.
“What fascinated me was the number of
people from diverse backgrounds we captured [on film],” he said. “It was the way
in which they engaged the politic: People were having discussion circles,
talking about a broad range of issues. It was quite inspiring.”
long the wild success of the movement promoted questions. Many started to wonder
what the social protest movement was protesting against. Was it limited to rent
in Tel Aviv, the cost of living in general or the capitalist system as a whole?
And what of the Israeli-Arab conflict? From its inception leaders of the
movement distanced themselves from issues pertaining to Israel’s relations with
its neighbors, perhaps with the aim of reaching out to the broadest possible
But to some like Sevitt, who will speak at Limmud about his
involvement in Occupy London and Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution, the
connection cannot be ignored.
“The insistence of Israeli society that
this is a social, and not a political, movement doesn’t make sense to me,” he
said. “I believe it was clearly rooted in the occupation.
tiredness. People are fed up with the situation and they want
The movement peaked on September 3 when between 230,000 and
400,000 Israelis took part in protests across the country, depending on whom you
The golden days of summer when Leef and company were constantly in
the news and drew thousands to the streets are long gone. The movement’s
momentum has waned and some of its leaders have fallen out with one
Leef and Shmuly, for instance, are no longer on speaking
The last couple of months have been particularly hard on Leef, who
did not answer phone calls or e-mails for this article. She has been criticized
for rejecting a committee formed in response to the protests before it handed in
its recommendations; allying herself with “greedy” labor unions and publicly
threatening Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to heed her calls “or
In response the protest leader has lowered her public profile and
highlighted her personal side.
In a tell-all interview with the Lady
Globes magazine, she said she was raped when she was 14, spoke about feelings of
alienation and loneliness and answered some of her critics by explaining why she
didn’t join the IDF (she was discharged for epilepsy and chose not to pursue
Leef still has a large following but she is no longer
the unassailable darling of the press she used to be. In Israel, opinions are
deeply divided over her. Some see in her a brave young woman who issued a call
to arms to protest against the ills of a society.
Others believe she is
either hopelessly naïve or worse, a populist and temperamental politician with a
Asked how Leef would be received at Limmud by
British Jews, Lee predicted she would be met with “a mix of fascination,
curiosity, interest and pride.”
She added: “Most people I’ve spoken to
are just keen to hear her story from her own mouth, in her own words.”