Leef bringing social movement message to UK

Israeli protest leader to speak at Limmud conference in Coventry.

Dafni Leef 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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 introduction.
Most participants at the Jewish educational confab, which draws thousands each year, have heard or read about her exploits.
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“Anyone 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 e-mail.
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 overwhelming.
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 the country.
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.”
Before 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 audience.
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.
There’s a tiredness. People are fed up with the situation and they want change.”
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 ask.
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 another.
Leef and Shmuly, for instance, are no longer on speaking terms.
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 else.”
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 national service).
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 self-promotion agenda.
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.”