If you’re looking for the definition of an Israeli hero, here’s my nomination: human rights activist Ezra Nawi. Well-known in the Israeli-Palestinian peace movement, Nawi is a true original. This is how he was described by journalist Neve Gordon in a recent Guardian article:
Nawi is not a typical rights activist. A member of the Ta’ayush Arab-Jewish Partnership he is a Jewish Israeli of Iraqi descent who speaks fluent Arabic. He is a gay man in his fifties and a plumber by trade. Perhaps because he himself comes from the margins, he empathises with others who have been marginalised – often violently.
Nawi has long been active on behalf of the Palestinians and Bedouins of South Hebron, a region where the occupation is particularly oppressive and harassment at the hands of Jewish settlers is virtually constant. While his non-violent activism has helped bring international attention to this troubled region, it has also made him a target in the eyes of the occupation authorities. In July 2007, he was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer while protesting the destruction of a Palestinian house. He will be sentenced next month and will most certainly face jail time unless there is a significant public outcry.
As it turns out, the home demolition and arrest were all captured on film and broadcast on the Israeli news. (Click above – Nawi is the one in the green jacket and the grey cap.) The footage is riveting and everything is clearly documented from beginning to end (including the non-assault of the officer.) Nawi himself gets the last word however. Sitting handcuffed in a military vehicle before laughing, scornful soldiers he says, “Yes, I was also a soldier, but I did not demolish houses. There’s a big difference. The only thing that will be left here is hatred…”
Since Nawi’s arrest, support has been building. Jesse Hochheiser’s blog, “Across the Borderline” contains several powerful testimonials, including this from Hebrew University professor and fellow Ta’ayush activist David Shulman:
Ezra Nawi is probably the most courageous person I have ever met. I have seen him in countless moments when settlers violently attacked him and other peace activists, Palestinians and Israelis; his presence of mind, steadfastness, and clarity always got us through such times. He is that most unusual of human beings– a person of profound inner gentleness and moral principle, selfless and creative in finding ways to help the Palestinian shepherds and farmers of the South Hebron hills.
The only thing standing between Ezra Nawi and imprisonment is your voice. Click here to offer your support.
Jerusalem District Court: Ezra Nawi
August 16. 2009
Ezra Nawi`s trial is drawing to a close. He`s accused of assaulting two Border Policemen during house demolitions at Um al-Kheir, and the judge, Eilata Ziskind, has already found him guilty. What`s left is sentencing, preceded by character witnesses and closing arguments. I`m here to bear witness on his behalf, along with several other activists and friends.
Here`s the context, in brief. In February, 2007, the army sent its bulldozers to demolish several of the tin-and-canvas shanties in Um al-Kheir. Ezra was there—he always appears, miraculously on time, wherever he is needed in south Hebron—and, in the best tradition of civil disobedience, he did his best to slow down the demolitions. He threw himself on the ground in front of the bulldozers, and the soldiers had to drag him away. Then he ran into one of the shacks about to be destroyed, and two Border Policemen ran in after him. All this is documented on video that is readily available on the internet. What the camera could not record is what happened in the 20 seconds or so inside the shack. Some days after the event, the Border Policemen claimed that Ezra resisted and also raised his hand against them; he fiercely denies this, and I believe him. I know the man, know his profound aversion to violence of any kind. At the time, they dragged him out and handcuffed him and arrested him. In the video you can see the soldiers mocking him for helping Palestinians; it`s not a pretty sight. You can also hear Ezra saying to them: `I was once a soldier myself, but I never destroyed a person`s home. Here only hatred will be left behind.`
It`s worth saying that if a Palestinian in Um al-Kheir needs to build a home or add a room to his tent or shack, there`s virtually no chance he`ll get a building permit. In all of Area C in the occupied territories (under direct Israeli control), with a Palestinian population of several hundred thousand souls, on average only one permit is issued each month. Inevitably, people end up building without permits—they usually have very large families—and just as inevitably, the Civil Administration, i.e. the Occupation Authority, issues its demolition orders and then sends the bulldozers to carry them out. On average, sixty such orders are issued every month, of which twenty are carried out. It`s happened many times at Um al-Kheir, only a few meters away from the modern red-roofed villas erected by Israeli settlers at the Carmel settlement. It happened again on February 14, 2007, when Ezra did whatever he could. I`m sorry I wasn`t there to help him that day.
Anyway, the judge had only the conflicting testimony of Ezra and the policemen, and naturally she believed the policemen. I was at the trial. I kept wanting to cry out: `Just open your eyes! The real crime was demolishing those homes, as any normal person can see. You should be grateful that Ezra Nawi was there, doing what he could.` But this is modern Israel: inside the occupied Palestinian territories, land is being taken away from its rightful owners every day, and the very few who stand up to protest, without violence, like Ezra Nawi, are sent to prison. In a way, it`s the lower echelons that count most—the grey bureaucrats funneling money to the settlements, the army commanders on the ground, the policemen, and the courts, military and civil, that sustain the whole wretched system. An enlightened judge in the District Court could, in theory, make a real difference.
So here we are at 8:00 AM in the District Court, Room 324 in the old Russian Compound (built by the Russian Orthodox Palestine Society for Russian pilgrims and clergy between 1859 and 1864). The courtroom is very small, far too small to accommodate all of Ezra`s friends and supporters. With the other witnesses, I am exiled to the grimy corridor outside. I`ve been told by Ezra`s experienced lawyer, Lea Tsemel, that I`ll have about five minutes, in the course of which I am supposed to explain the history of Gandhian civil disobedience and Ezra`s place in this venerable tradition. I`ve rehearsed in my mind what I want to say and can only hope that they`ll give me a chance and that I will find the words. My friend Suchitra has advised me to adopt one of Gandhi`s own methods before facing the judge: to pray. In the constant commotion in the corridor—burly policemen passing by loaded down with stacks of shiny handcuffs, clerks pushing trays heavy with files, and quite a few lost souls in search of someone or something undefined– I give it a try.
After an hour or so, I am ushered in. To my left stands the prosecutor, a young Palestinian woman, believe it or not. I smile at Ezra to my right and vaguely take in the faces of a few of my activist colleagues on the benches near the door. Far above me, behind a high wooden bar, sit Justice Ziskind and, at her side, an earnest typist hovering over a computer keyboard. I am advised that I must speak the truth and that I must speak it slowly, as slowly as possible, so the typist can keep up and the transcript will be complete.
`How long have you known the defendant?`
A long time, I say, several decades. He was our plumber. Highly professional. He worked for us for many years, dealt with various emergencies, before I had any inkling of his political views or his activism. But in the last nine years, I am with him regularly in the south Hebron hills, on peace work.
`What can you tell us about him?`
First, I say, I want to emphasize that I have been through many difficult moments with him—attacks by settlers, in particular—and I have never seen him respond to violence with violence. Once in Susya, in 2005, settlers broke a wooden pole over his head, and he stood his ground without hitting back. I was right beside him, and I saw it. I have seen such instances many times. He is committed to non-violence protest in every fiber of his being.
I mean the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Henry David Thoreau.
The typist raises her hands. The judge repeats the first two names. I can see I have to help out, so I spell them: G-a-n-d-h-i. From India, the struggle against British colonialism. M-a-r-t-i-n…….
Actually, there`s an advantage to this pace. It gives you plenty of time to think and also allows you to say everything twice or thrice, which is all to the good. I keep looking at the judge, trying to reach her eyes and, if at all possible, her heart. She remains aloof, impassive. She looks right through me. She looks, in fact, rather bored. She is, however, deeply concerned with helping the typist. She nods to me to go on.
Everyone recognizes, I tell the court, the method, or the way of life, of non-violent civil disobedience. Ezra Nawi is in this tradition. I see him as belonging to the same honored series as those brave Americans who entered segregated buses together with blacks in the South, fifty years ago, though it was illegal for a black person to be on those buses; or with those who accompanied black children to schools though it was against the law for them to be in all-white schools. We are talking about situations in which non-violent protest is directed against a system and its rules or actions which may be technically legal but which are in conflict with basic human values and with our conscience as human beings. A man like Ezra Nawi feels he has not only the right but, in fact, a duty to try to oppose such rules.
Most of this has to be repeated several times. The judge is getting restless. I will have to squeeze all the rest into a few sentences at most. But by now I have relaxed enough to think more or less clearly, and I know where I am going.
Mahatma Gandhi, I say, told the British judge in Ahmedabad in 1922: `Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good.` This is the situation we face in the south Hebron hills. I am certain that a day will come when Ezra Nawi`s name will be taught in Israeli schools, in the textbooks, as an example of a person who embodied true human values in the dark times that we are living through today.
She`s doing her best, the typist, but it`s not working. `What kind of times did you say?`
What I really want to say is: No one remembers the name of the British judge who sent Gandhi to jail in 1922 or the judges who imprisoned Nelson Mandela and Henry David Thoreau. But I don`t say it. I bite my tongue. Still, I allow myself a parting shot.
There`s just one more thing, I say. I`m sixty years old, I have four grandchildren, and I sometimes think that if there is anything that I can be proud of in my life, then it`s not the books I have written or the prizes I have won but those moments in south Hebron when I had the privilege of standing beside Ezra Nawi when the settlers attacked.
It feels good to have said it. In fact, I even got to say it twice.
Now the prosecutor cross-examines in musical, Arabic-tinged Hebrew. She wants to know if I know anything about Ezra`s previous convictions. I say they`re not relevant. And, she says, you`re not impartial, I bet you`re angry at the settlers. Sometimes I am, I say, and turn the question back on her: `If someone attacked you, would you not be a little angry, too?` She seems nonplussed at this; I can`t help wondering how she feels, arguing against Ezra, crossing the lines. Perhaps she`s overcompensating. All the witnesses later report that she kept striving earnestly to impugn Ezra`s character. Just doing her job. Or is she? You can`t tell me she really believes those Border Policemen and their predictable story. I wonder where she grew up and where she studied law. I guess it`s all part of the surreal world of the Israeli courtroom. No one is innocent there, though some are less innocent than others.
I think about what Gandhi wrote in his statement to the judge in Ahmedabad: `The greatest misfortune is that Englishmen and their Indian associates in the administration do not know that they are engaged in crime.` Sounds familiar. Most Israelis don`t know, or don`t want to know; judges included. Some would, no doubt, be incredulous were they to see the reality in the territories as it is. It is, in fact, hard to believe; take it from me. Then I start to wonder if Gandhian satyagraha is really the right method in this Levantine morass. Could it ever soften the heart of even one Israeli soldier? Yes, it can: I know an instance from Bil`in; one of the soldiers stationed in the village, seeing the army`s brutal suppression of the villagers` protest, has come over to our side and now comes with us to south Hebron. Bil`in pioneered Gandhian methods in Palestine, and it is not alone. But will any of this turn the tide? Almost certainly not. Israel does not have the internal resources to make political change. We have the dream of mass civil disobedience in Palestine, led by some charismatic figure still undiscovered. It is still a dream. In the past, the army has shown great talent in turning non-violent demonstrations into violent ones, which the generals and the politicians much prefer. And yet—there is truly no other way. Violence always compounds the evil. And besides: the beauty of Gandhian-style protest is that it needs no further justification; it is right in itself, worth doing for itself, for the sake of truth. Ezra may never have read Gandhi`s words, but he knows, intuitively, from his own experience of the world, what the man meant.
Judge Ziskind dismisses me and I go back to the corridor where Galit, who testified just before me, is sitting with the Hebrew Bible on her lap; she quoted a few relevant verses to the judge. Even I can remember a time when verses like `Justice, justice shalt thou pursue` (Deuteronomy 16:20) meant something to the Jews. Maybe someday they`ll have meaning once again. Another young Palestinian lawyer is waiting there, for some reason, and we start to chat. He got his law degree from Al-Quds University in Abu Dis. The Israel Bar Association recognizes degrees from Al-Quds, but the Israel Council for Higher Education won`t give Al-Quds graduates the same academic rank as others for one simple reason—because their university is named Al-Quds, that is, `Jerusalem.` If only they would change the name and give up their claim to the city….. Every once in a while one of our friends comes out to tell us what`s happening. The two lawyers argue at length over the sentence, Lea striving hard to get the judge to impose a suspended punishment, conditional upon repeated offense. Eventually Ezra himself is given a chance to speak, and for once he holds back a little, following Lea`s stern advice, though he lashes out at the Palestinian prosecutor for compromising what she must know to be the truth. The court adjourns. Sentencing will take place on September 21st.
We pour outside into the molten summer sun. A small crowd has gathered to applaud Ezra and shake his hand. These are the stalwarts of the peace movement, or what`s left of it: Jews and Palestinians, women and men, hardened by years in the field, by endless disappointments and trauma. We cluster around Ezra, the living center-point of this struggle. There`s not much we can do now except to wait and hope. In the meantime, there`s much work to be done in south Hebron. There`s never an end to the work, and we long ago learned not to think too much about its fruits or, for that matter, its cost. I think we`re all of us happy to take the risks. Maybe in Israel today, mired in collective crime and self-righteous rationalization, jail is the right place for a decent person like Ezra. He won`t be the first. As for those textbooks I was talking about, for Israeli schools—I think we may have a very long wait.
re. David Shulman’s Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine (2007, U of Chicago Press):
David Shulman is the Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at Hebrew University, and a world-renown expert in Sanskrit and the history of Indian religion. The book is his diary of activities with Ta’ayush, the Jewish-Arab organization founded during the dark days of the Second Intifada that provides food and relief supplies for Palestinians and Bedouin.