Tel Aviv City Councilwoman Closes Off Soccer Field to Asylum Seekers

For over a month migrants have been locked out of a neighborhood pitch by a local politician who says she’s ‘at war ’

A soccer field that was locked to keep out asylum seeker children in south Tel Aviv, November, 2018.
Moti Milrod

A Tel Aviv city councilwoman, on her own initiative, locked up a soccer field in the southern part of the city for several weeks to prevent asylum seekers from using it. The pitch has been locked on and off for the past six weeks, although the municipality received a complaint about the issue three weeks ago.

The outgoing councilwoman, Suzi Cohen Zemach, confirmed the story and said, “I will continue to lock the gate and make order here.” She said she locked the gate after local residents complained that asylum seekers had hit them and thrown them off the field.

The Tel Aviv municipality said that the field was a public field and that it, “will take serious action against any unauthorized attempt to seize control of it.”

Suzi Cohen Zemach speaks to the press in favor of the deportation of asylum seekers in April, 2018.
Tomer Appelbaum

Cohen Zemach was the sole representative of the Drom Ha’ir faction on the city council and is a prominent anti-migrant activist in Tel Aviv’s southern neighborhoods. In last month’s elections her slate did not pass the electoral threshold. The faction ran under the slogan, “Taking the south [of the city] into our hands,” and demanded the expulsion of asylum seekers from the southern neighborhoods.

At the end of September she and another activist came to the new soccer field in the Kiryat Shalom neighborhood and locked it with a lock and chain. Neighborhood children found a hole in the fence and were able to get in that way. Since the gate remained locked, however, a few days later some asylum-seeker children asked their youth leaders to come with them to the field to prevent confrontations. In videos and photos obtained by Haaretz, one can see another anti-migrant activist on the field, while Cohen Zemach, holding a lock and chain, is seen speaking to policemen at the scene.

“The youths told me that there was no problem or violence before. On the contrary, the kids played together,” said a youth leader who volunteers at the library at Levinsky Park. “The kids I work with simply stopped going there; everyone is suffering from this bullying, including the public she [Cohen Zemach] ostensibly represents.”

Cohen Zemach told the youths who were removed from the field that it was for “her” community, recounted one teenager who used to play there.

A protest in favor of the deportation of asylum seekers in Tel Aviv, June, 2018.
Meged Gozani

Another youth counselor who works with Assaf, the aid organization for refugees and asylum seekers, said she had heard about the locked field from a 12th grader in the organization’s youth club. He was told that “the field was only for neighborhood kids and not for ‘infiltrators,’“ she said.

When she visited the field it was indeed locked, but there were children playing inside who told her, “Suzy is in charge of the field.” “How is it that a private person decides on her own to lock a field and everyone is fine with this?” asked the youth counselor. “Even if there had been violence – and there wasn’t – does that justify such behavior?”

The youth counselor complained about the matter to the municipal hotline.

Cohen Zemach says the field, as well as another in the southern part of the city, was built over the past year at her request. According to the city the field cost 1.5 million shekels ($407,000).

“They threw our people off the field,” she said, referring to the asylum seekers. “Why do you think I would give in to them? For whom did I build this field? For my community,” Cohen Zemach said last week. “They have enough fields in Neveh Sha’anan [another southern neighborhood in Tel Aviv]. Let them play there; they can’t take over everything and certainly not in a violent manner. I’m at war and I’ll continue the war.”

The Assaf organization said, “The Tel Aviv municipality has been aware of the issue for a while but is dragging its feet in handling it. The city must immediately open the field and ensure it remains open and accessible to all the neighborhoods’ children.”