A Protest Leader Outside the Pale

Whether being brutally arrested or hobnobbing with Israel's elite, Daphni Leef represents change.

"What the hell is this place?" asks Daphni Leef, 26, just before entering the President's Conference at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem. 

Leef, who until a year ago was a simple video editor and filmmaker, is not accustomed to the sort of razzmatazz that defines these sorts of events. She has never been to a flashy convention filled with politicians, ministers, prime ministers, CEOs, CFOs and socialites seeking a little glamour.

With a blue dress, black high-heeled shoes and a feather in her hair, she is clearly nervous. She is out of her element in every possible way, and in 10 minutes she is about to go on stage and speak about the Israeli social protest – which she founded – in front of dozens of people. She will be seated next to an old frenemy she hasn't seen in a while: Itzik Shmuli, chairman of the National Israel Student Union, one of the leaders of the protest last summer and nowadays a pariah at protest events.

A year after becoming an instant icon, a symbol of defiance and a celebrity, Leef is still not accustomed to her VIP status. Instead of hobnobbing with the rich, the famous and the wannabes who fill the halls of the ICC, she prefers to engage her driver and her chaperone.She feels more akin to them than to the "suits" around her. She knows their names, asks about their thoughts about the protest.

"People say 'you failed' when it fails to live up to their expectations, and say 'we did it' when it does," she says about the disappointment many Israelis feel towards the protest, one year after it began with a bang. "The public is supposed to protest, supposed to say 'I don't accept this'. If it does that loudly enough, the government should respond with an effective answer. When that doesn’t happen, it is easy to look at this thing we call 'the social protest' as the source of everything that's wrong, but that's just not true.

"The protest is right, it is just. It stemmed from a real problem that just keeps growing. No doubt, there's a lot of cynicism and a growing sense of disappointment, that's exactly why we must continue."

People think she's impulsive. She isn't. When Leef speaks, she weighs her words, deciding whether to answer and how. For months she declined interviews, kept mum, slowly building the social movement she will reveal in the coming weeks, after long preparations, deliberations and bureaucracy.

But then something happened. A week before our meeting at the President's Conference, a close friend told her he was leaving Israel because he just could not make it here. It was the tenth time in a few weeks she had received such a phone call. "I just flipped," she says.

The day after the conference, she is supposed to set up tents on Rothschild Boulevard again, despite the eyebrows this kind of attempt to recreate last year's magic automatically raises. It is in her heart, it burns in her soul, the feeling that she must do this.   

But right now there is today. She is in Jerusalem, the city where she was born and grew up. She is in a blue dress, with a feather in her hair, being treated as an honored guest at an event where she feels totally out of place – an eternal wallflower. And there is Shmuli, who is trying to embarrass her on stage, claiming that last year he had to fight with some of the other protest leaders about singing the national anthem during one of the big protest rallies. This is one of many times Shmuli has raised this argument, but Leef will not have it anymore.

"The argument was not about whether the anthem would be sung or not, but whether it should come from the audience or the stage – I supported it coming from the audience, trying not to make the non-Jewish participants feel they are not included. Eventually we agreed to it being sung on stage, but Shmuli still leaked the fact that we had this argument the next day," she says. "I want to appeal to Itzik right now and say, let's see where we can cooperate instead of rehashing the past."

Shmuli is visibly dumbfounded.

"Did I do okay?" she asks once she is off the stage, worried.

Then she is upset when she sees one of the news websites misquoted her. It is just another ordinary day, really. These things happen to her all the time since she first pitched her tent on Rothschild. It is just another day in the office.

The next day, Daphni Leef is arrested after trying to raise a tent on Rothschild with fellow activists. She is brutally beaten by several officers – her hand sprained and one of her ribs broken – and taken into custody, where she is charged with attacking four officers despite footage of her arrest proving her innocence. After long hours in custody, during which she is denied any medical care, she is bailed out. After visiting the hospital, she goes home to heal.

But the footage of her arrest – and the arrests of 11 other activists protesting alongside her – shocks the country and leads thousands of people to gather for a large, angry march and demonstration, chanting "Democracy!" and shattering  the window of a local branch of Bank Hapoalim.

Despite the pain in her chest and hand, she is there, quietly watching from a safe distance, surrounded by friends protecting her. She watches as 89 more people are arrested with brutal force in one of the most raucous demonstrations in Israel in recent times.

A week later, Leef is still healing from her wounds, still telling people to hug her gently, because it hurts. She has just started raising funds for her movement and has collected more than 25,000 Shekels in a single day. During the past two weeks, Israel has been in the midst of a fiery debate about the definition of violence, its legitimacy as a tool for social change and the need, or lack thereof, for police brutality.

Two weeks ago, when asked if she was not afraid of being thrust back into the spotlight for another summer of protests and rallies, she said, "I am more afraid of a summer without protests. I am much more afraid of the fact that many of my friends are leaving – that each day more and more people are feeling a bit more of their earnings have been taken from them. My dream is still to make films in Israel, and one day I'll do that. But first, I want Israeli society to get better, so that people will have time for themselves, so they can do more than just work, sleep and get back to work. What we have now is just crazy".