Life & Culture

Daphni Leef: How a woman in a tent became Israel's top story

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


Until recently nobody had heard 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" about politics in 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 country. "There are 60-year-old men who fought wars coming 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.

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