Late last Monday, Sheffi Paz and five of her co-activists met below her home in Tel Aviv’s Shapira neighborhood. The goal was to plaster south Tel Aviv with 500 yellow and black posters proclaiming “Stop Huldai!” This was in order “to encourage neighborhood residents” to join an emergency protest against Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s plan to build a school for migrant worker children, Paz said.
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Paz was part of an entirely different protest group 40 years ago. Back then, she was with the Peace Now group at Sebastia in the West Bank, fighting the initial group of Elon Moreh settlers trying to renew the Jewish presence in the northern West Bank.
Later, as a member of the left-wing Meretz party and as a prominent lesbian activist, she took part in a vigil outside the residence of President Ezer Weizman, who had become accused of making homophobic and chauvinistic comments.
Paz also stood alongside transgender people and drag queens in the disturbances when the police shut down Tel Aviv’s Wigstock festival in 1998. She was also part of the social protests in the summer of 2011.
Today, though, Paz, 63, is the most prominent activist in the struggle to deport asylum seekers. She’s hard to miss: Sporting a short haircut and single earring, she always shows up wearing a black T-shirt emblazened with “The Liberation Front of South Tel Aviv.”
The white lettering on the T-shirt triggers associations with the Islamic State group, something that amuses her. However, she stresses, “We were here first.” If you’re looking for a terror group association, a reference to the “popular front” is more inviting, she says. “We’re actually the military wing,” she adds, smiling.
Jokes aside, when Paz and her activists put on their “uniforms” and patrol the streets at night, intimidating asylum seekers, it is a strange, fearful sight – one that makes it hard to believe such statements as “I do not preach violence.” She’s already had three violent encounters with Africans and three arrests. In addition, a restraining order was placed against her to prevent further harassment of social activist Sigal Avivi.
“Our activities are not violent, I swear to you,” she claims. “They are perhaps provocative, maybe they touch on the definition of incitement. Okay, I accept that.”
The school, planned for Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv, is the perfect kindling for her. The elementary school, which will cost an estimated 5 million shekels ($1.3 million), is set to include 36 classrooms. ”If we lose there, it is a lost cause – because that means total immersion of the infiltrators [the derogatory term some Israelis, including politicians, use for asylum seekers] in south Tel Aviv and the ultimate labeling of the area as a migrant workers’ quarter,” she says. “It’s going to be a big war.”
Paz admits her involvement is wrapped in “lots of dissonance.” She’s a middle-class Ashkenazi [Jew of Eastern European descent] woman who posts messages dripping with venom about “privileged Ashkenazim.” She’s an atheist who joins the masses in shouting ”Those who believe are not afraid.” She rubs shoulders with the dazed margins of the messianic right, while simultaneously declaring support for civil marriage and separation of religion and state.
A fine line
“I am trying to walk a very fine line,” she says repeatedly during our conversation. “At first, the struggle [in south Tel Aviv] was identified with activist May Golan and Kahanists, and we came along to provide a more moderate voice,” she explains.
“I spoke with people close to the [anti-assimilationist] Lehava organization and to [extreme right-wing settler] Baruch Marzel, and asked them not to join our protests. I also dedicate a lot of time to deleting violent comments on Facebook. Anyone who writes ‘Nigger’ or ‘Kill them’ receives a warning the first time, and then is blocked.”
She insists her initial approach was relatively moderate, yet “they quickly branded me a radical. When everyone around you calls you a bastard, you say, ‘Let’s go with it, let’s be a bastard.’ The first time they called me a Nazi was very hard. When they continued with Zio-Nazi, Judeo-Nazi and Hitlerist bitch – one of the expressions they love the most – I started answering back.”
The nonchalance with which Paz refers to the Holocaust reverberates given her own background. Her mother survived the camps, and although her father escaped from Russia, he lost his entire family to the Shoah.
Paz was born in Lodz, Poland, but remembers very little of it (“except the slide in the snow”). Her family moved to Israel when she was 4, living in the Kiryat Ata transit camp. Her mother died in a traffic accident at age 46, when Paz was 21. With her father injured in the crash, no one was by her side the night her mother fought for her life. “It was an experience etched in me. I was filled with anger at people who were not there,” Paz recounts. “My lesson was that it’s impossible to trust anybody – that in the end I am alone in the world.
At 29, mutual friends set her up with Tali (Paz withholds her last name). Together, they set up a layout and typography business and settled in the heart of Tel Aviv. Their serene routine was upturned when Paz was diagnosed with cancer at 38. The two moved southward and, almost 20 years ago, bought a rooftop apartment in the Shapira neighborhood.
The “Tel Aviv is not a storage space for infiltrators” sticker on the door of her workroom – she calls it her war room – is the only sign of the militant struggle Paz is waging from her home. “I came here as a classic example of gentrification, with prejudices and stereotypes,” she admits. “I thought I would live above in the rooftop apartment, and nothing below would touch me. However, it came, and today I am in a completely different place.”
When Paz says “it,” she is referring to the asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan who, as she sees it, are the “people who invaded my home uninvited, damaged my lifestyle and quality of life, insulted me and committed crimes against me.”
As we walked around the neighborhood, we ran into an African boy dressed as Spider-Man, playing hide and seek with a pair of Israeli girls dressed as princesses. “On the one hand it’s cute. On the other, it’s exactly what scares me – integration,” Paz says. “Ironically, I came to live here because of things like that ... I moved here clearly knowing that Africans live here. I would go to their weddings and baptisms, and they would attend my festivities. Moreover, during the big deportations by the [police’s immigration] Oz unit in 2002, I hid neighbors from Ghana. They were my friends. They respected the neighborhood. They were partners. It’s all about proportionality.”
Paz reiterates that it’s nothing personal, and certainly nothing racist when it comes to African asylum seekers. Rather, “the problem is in the masses,” she says. “To this day, if you ask people in the Hatikva neighborhood, they will tell you, ‘This kid is from Ghana, so we have no problem with him, but that boy is from Eritrea.’”
Fanning the flames
In April 2012, a young Israeli threw a firebomb at a kindergarten for refugee children in the Shapira neighborhood, setting it alight. That was precisely when Paz had her first crisis with the left. “I went to the place and saw two demonstrations opposite each other,” she recalls.
“On one side of the square was a bunch of bleeding heart lefties, who were playing guitar and shouting slogans against racism and ‘Refugees are welcome.’ I studied them closely and didn’t recognize anyone from the neighborhood. Residents on the other side were shouting ‘Death to the Sudanese!’ At first I tried to calm them, but at some point I felt I had to choose a side.”
Still, when Paz started her public activity, she sought to serve as a sane alternative to Baruch Marzel – who had set up a “neighborhood police” group on behalf of the residents – and Michael Ben Ari, at the time a National Union MK and who had established an office in the Hatikva neighborhood.
But she took a sharp turn rightward both in rhetoric and practice. If at first she spoke of “differential dispersion by law” – meaning diluting the presence of asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv by moving them to other places in Israel – today she won’t settle for anything less than total deportation.
“First, because they only go to weak [poor] neighborhoods,” she explains. “I say with absolute demagoguery that if they move them to Kfar Shmaryahu and Herzliya [upscale areas north of Tel Aviv], I will support dispersion. Oh, and Caesarea, too. Let them build a tent camp next to Bibi’s home,” she adds, a reference to Benjamin Netanyahu’s private residence on the Israeli coastline.
Paz says that when she still considered herself a “half-leftist,” there was an attempt to work with the migrants. “We sat with people like the activists Sigal Avivi and [attorney] Barak Cohen, attempting to create a dialogue. There were two or three very charged meetings,” she recalls. “We demanded that they first of all prove they can control their population – to educate the people to clean the stairwells, stop relieving themselves in the street, and to reduce the level of crime, while the only thing that interested them was a joint press conference.”
Avivi see things differently. “These meetings were initiated by the Eritrean community, who really went out of their way to understand the points of friction and find a consensus, recognizing the burden it placed on the neighborhood’s residents,” she says. “The top leadership [of the south Tel Aviv group] attended, but most of the time they were just accusing them of urinating in the stairwells. It was humiliating for them. After one of the meetings, Sheffi uploaded a terrible video clip to YouTube, in which she harasses groups of Africans and kicks them out.”
Matters went downhill from there. At every event Avivi and her activists organized, Paz and her people showed up to interfere. For example, last August, when they organized an open stage event in Levinsky Park or accompanied buses to the Holot detention facility in southern Israel (where many asylum seekers are held), “they blocked the bus, snarled, spat and said awful things that I don’t want to repeat,” recalls Avivi.
Combining two of her activist passions, Paz has merged the LGBT’s Pride flag into the struggle she is leading. “One of the beautiful side effects that is happening unintentionally is that I am working against homophobia,” she says. “Not long ago, I posted about my son, who went to get his first ID card at the Interior Ministry, and he asked that they put ‘Mother’s name’ down twice. [The post] went viral and I checked the likes, one by one. There were neighborhood residents, ultra-Orthodox people and settlers. There were very few homophobic comments. When we demonstrated at Habima [Square] against leftist organizations, there were Pride flags on our side, and their people were confused for a moment and didn’t understand who was who. I love it best breaking stereotypes.”
Indeed, members of Likud Pride – an affiliated gay group – became regular attendees at demonstrations organized by Paz. Her close circle of volunteers also has a relatively high number of gay people. One of them is even a Labor Party activist. However, not everyone in south Tel Aviv is crazy about these alliances, perceiving them as outside interference and leftist pollution.
But it was an incident with another flag that highlights Paz’s journey from left to right best: the first time she draped the Israeli flag around herself. “It was during a period when we were working on Saturdays outside the churches. Stood opposite them with music, and dancing. We went to Levinsky Park that Shabbat, and just then a bus arrived that was about to go to Holot, so we blocked their way. We stood for an hour and did not let them go. I found myself there wrapped in a flag. I felt really strange, but it was a lot of fun – an amazing experience. They raised us to be anti the national symbols and the national anthem, and suddenly I felt good there.”