Israeli Social-justice Protest Leaders Seek Greener Pastures Abroad

'It hurts me that soon, I won’t have any friends left here,’ writes 2011 protest pioneer Daphni Leef.

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It’s hard to recall an event in the social protests of summer 2011 that didn’t include the tall figure of Ilyan Marshak, 29, who videotaped the demonstrations and posted them online, all while cursing policemen and politicians in several languages. Marshak created a new brand of journalism – broadcast by cellphone.

But two months ago, the citizen journalist-cum-demonstrator disappeared from Israeli protests, reappearing in a village near the Latvian capital of Riga, where he grows flowers and posts Facebook updates about their buds. He’s already postponed his return twice. He said he’s still merely “checking out options,” but is “leaning toward staying. ... I haven’t announced I’m leaving Israel, but people understand.”

Political despair played a role in Marshak’s decision: “I don’t see the Israeli public taking responsibility for solving the economic problems in the near term. Here, there’s the basic chance for a house and a modest plot of land; that’s every person’s dream. I’m living on the bare minimum, but many people tell me I’m realizing their dream.

“Two years ago, I believed everything depended on hard work, and that it would all work out. I was naïve. I believed in the administration and the systems of law and government.”

A case against Marshak for disturbing the peace is still pending. He was arrested along with Daphni Leef, one of the protest leaders, as they tried to set up tents on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard in June 2012. He termed it a “political trial,” adding, “The Israeli authorities’ behavior is like what it was in the Soviet Union.”

Granted, most leaders of the 2011 protests remain in Israel and are still fighting. But a few young people with shining eyes whom I interviewed that summer have left – whether out of frustration at the protests’ outcome or because Israel has become too expensive. The reasons are almost always complex, and like Marshak, most won’t say they’ve left for good.

Yotam Ishay, who set up a tent on Rothschild Boulevard on the protest’s very first day and co-founded the “People’s House,” now lives in Berlin. Poet and activist Mati Shmuelof is en route to Berlin, hoping for a student visa (the current government, he said, “has closed off any possibility of near-term change. I’ve despaired politically.”) Liora Yukla is en route to New York. Shir Aloni is studying German with the goal of someday trying out Berlin.

Most of those who are leaving weren’t key protest leaders, but they went to occasional demonstrations, and saw their dreams die. This is a slow, quiet brain drain – as if to tell Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yair Lapid that they indeed gained control of the country and quashed the protests, but they’ll have fewer young citizens to control. “It hurts me that soon, I won’t have any friends left here,” Leef wrote on Walla last week, urging people to stay and fight.

‘No future in my country’

Maayan Iungman set up a tent on Rothschild Boulevard in 2011 with high hopes. Last year, she moved to Berlin, where she’s creating a giant wall mosaic near the city’s Jewish cemetery.

“The aggressiveness and atmosphere of survival in Israel were hard for me, even though my life in Tel Aviv was wonderful,” she said. “During the protest, for the first time, there was an exciting feeling of attempting to foment change. ... Suddenly, there was a spark. But I no longer have much hope. It’s enervating – like standing behind a deaf man shouting, pleading and singing, with no response.”

Michal Tal, 24, was one of the leaders of the protests in Haifa. When I called her, she was at the airport leaving on a trip to India, after which she plans to move to Canada. She’s abandoned her studies.

During the protest, she said, she was hopeful that things would change. But today, “I don’t see any future in my country. I was especially broken by the rise of Yesh Atid [Lapid’s party]. The protest has gone with the wind, and not in the direction we wanted.”

She said many of her friends in Haifa, especially Technion students, are also thinking of leaving. “Conditions here are tough. It doesn’t matter which city you’re in, everything is horribly expensive.”

During the protest, I visited Valerie Geslev’s tent every evening, chatting with her and her friends till the wee hours of the morning. When the Tel Aviv municipality evicted the tent encampment, city inspectors threw the tent and everything in it into the trash. A broken Geslev wrote on Facebook, “Today the Tel Aviv municipality reminded me of my place in society.”

Today, she’s studying curating at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. “During the protest, I felt for the first time that I belonged to the society I lived in,” she said. “I enjoyed every minute; I felt optimistic.”

Having her tent thrown in the trash instantly reduced her to the status of “embittered victimhood.” But in retrospect, she said, the municipality did her a favor: “The eviction kicked me out of my comfort zone, and now things are very good for me.”

One of the chief editors of the protest website j14 is leaving for London with his partner in another month. He asked to remain anonymous, since he hasn’t yet mustered the courage to tell his family.

“I have a lot of seething anger over how the whole business is being run and how we, the citizens, just accept the situation,” he said. “I had hope in summer 2011 that there would be social elections that would echo the energy of the street. The rise of Yesh Atid is very frustrating from the standpoint of civic consciousness.

“I’m aware that it’s a long process; I wasn’t expecting short-term achievements. It’s clear the process is inevitable and that the protest had accomplishments. Nor do I think the protest is dead. But it’s such a long process, and I don’t believe anything significant will change for the better in the coming years, so I felt free to leave. When civic consciousness has ripened, I’ll return. I hope that in London, the despair will be more comfortable.”

A cost-of-living protest in Tel Aviv in 2012.Credit: David Bachar
Daphni Leef holding up her charge sheet, January 7, 2013. Credit: Moti Milrod
Ilyan Marshak on his Instagram account.Credit: Ilyan Marshak

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