Ezra Itzhak Nawi (Hebrew: עזרא יצחק נאווי; born 1952) is an Israeli human rights activist and pacifist. He is particularly active among the Bedouin herders and farmers of the South Hebron Hills. He has been charged for numerous infractions of the law, convicted for a number of offences, and served several short stints in prison as a consequence of his activism. He has been described as a "Ta'ayush nudnik", and "a working-class, liberal gay version of Joe the Plumber". Some regard him as an extreme leftist activist and troublemaker. According to David Shulman, he is an Israeli exponent of Gandhian civil disobedience.
He came to international attention after being convicted in 2007 of participating in a riot and assaulting two police officers in connection with the demolition of Bedouin homes in the West Bank by Israeli border policemen. In 2008, Nissim Mossek produced a film on his life, private and public, which has had mixed reviews.
Nawi was born in Jerusalem, one of five siblings, to a Mizrahi Iraqi family originally from Basra, which had made aliyah from Kurdistan shortly before his birth. His mother bore him when she was 14 years of age. He was raised by a grandmother who spoke to him in Iraqi Arabic, an accent he still retains. When Nawi was a teenager, they lived next door to Reuven Kaminer, a leading figure in Israel’s Communist Party, and Kaminer, he has reminisced, influenced his activism. In his spell as a conscript in the IDF, he served in a combat engineering unit. After the 1973 Yom Kippur war, where his duties included laying mines along the Suez Canal, he went abroad, travelling widely in the US and Europe, and spending some time in both the UK and Ireland.
Career and political awakening
Nawi became a plumber by profession. He also adopted a lifestyle that is openly gay. He developed an interest in human rights, which he says comes from his experience of "belonging to a despised minority", after meeting Irish University lecturer David Norris and forming a relationship with him in Dublin when they met at Christmas in 1975. Nawi insisted on going home with Norris after meeting him at a party - it was mutual love at first sight - and Norris found his sterile home, replete with every modern commodity but where only eggs and tea were the staple, suddenly transformed as Nawi's spicy Middle Eastern cooking suffused his Edwardian home. Nawi mulled the idea of emigrating to Ireland; Norris helped him buy a home in Ramot. Their partnership, predominantly a mariage blanc since the physical side ended after three years, lasted 10 years, and ultimately broke up after Nawi refused to commit, having in the meantime fallen in love with an Israeli athlete, with whom he lived for a decade. The three remained on the best of terms.  His interest in human rights developed further over several years while he shared his home in Jerusalem for several years with a West Bank Palestinian, Fuad Mussa, who feared an honour killing because of his homosexuality. Nawi was subsequently convicted on charges of allowing his partner to live illegally with him in Israel. The difficulties they encountered acquainted him with the hardships of Arab life, and, he says, this was a turning point that led him to embrace an activist role in the West Bank in the 1980s. Friends and clients of Nawi's raised £30,000 to bail out his companion when Fuad was arrested after restrictions tightened during the Second Intifada. An appeal was made to the President of Israel, Moshe Katsav, for his release, and an ex-gratia permit was eventually given to them to allow the couple to reside together in Jerusalem. By then, however, the relationship had broken up. Nawi had in the meantime joined the Jewish-Arab human rights organization Ta'ayush, where his fluency in both Hebrew and Arabic allowed him to serve as a liaison between local Palestinians in the Hebron area and Israeli activists. According to Amiel Vardi, a classics scholar of Hebrew University and co-founder of Ta'ayush, he has an instinctive sense of relations with Palestinians which other activists, many of them Jewish intellectuals like himself, lack. He used surplus earnings from his plumbing trade to subsidize his activities, and was reputed to charge exorbitantly for his services in order to earn enough money to donate to the fallāḥīn.
According to Ian Buruma, his activism is more practical than political. Nawi himself says of his work, "(T)his is not about ideology. It is about decency". He is widely revered by young activists as a guide and mentor in the West Bank.
Nawi, one of several Israeli activists in the South Hebron hillsis said to have adopted the distinctive cave-dwelling Bedouin resident in this zone, Eighty to a hundred members of these families, of the Bedouin al-Hathalin clan, refugees from Tel Arad in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, dwell at Umm al-Khair, a village south of Hebron, 30 metres from the Israeli settlement of Carmel, Har Hebron. This is one of the many khirbehs of that area. They eke out a rough livelihood pasturing their goats and sheep on rocky land purchased from its Palestinian owners in the early 1950s. They are hardscrabble farmers of desolate hills where, according to Nawi, "nobody else would even try to grow anything," but where these Bedouin are often prevented from working the land. His attachment to these people and their biblical way of life flowed, he says, from his first encounter with them. He thought their distinctive lifestyle was subject to an "existential danger" in the way their fields were burned, their grazing stock poisoned, their wells poisoned, or demolished, their aged beaten and their land expropriated. He has been assaulted by settlers while helping Palestinians harvest olives from their own olive groves. Some, fearing for their lives, will not return to their fields unless Nawi accompanies them. He sleeps overnight in their houses to deter IDF soldiers reportedly throwing rocks at dwellings after dark. He is active in many of their encampments from Bi'r al-'Id to Susia and Umm al-Kheir. His arrival on the scene when settlers attacked a Bedouin family near Twamin and stole 450 head of their sheep livestock, was sufficient, according to Rabbis for Human Rights, to cause the settlers to desist and retreat.
Nawi and this small group of activists have been described as an 'independent aid agency': 'whatever cash went into their hands was immediately translated into solving the problems of the poorest of the land.' For the last decade he has set up summer day camps for Bedouin children, brought in projectors to show them films, and taken them on trips to Jericho where, for the first time in their life, they can have an opportunity to swim. He has introduced computer technology in these communities, installed solar panels and electricity-generating windmills with the assistance of an Israeli engineer from COMET:ME for a Palestinian refugee camp. He helps ambulances get through roadblocks and hands out cash to poor people. He has organized Ta'ayush activities which involve escorting children to school and protecting them from settlers. After a Knesset committee grilled an IDF commander on the way children were being prevented from going to school, the IDF instituted armoured personnel carriers to accompany them. Such escorts however do not apply when summer camps are conducted, and, according to Nawi, a settler quipped that while the Geneva Convention guaranteed children the right to a schooling, it says nothing about their right to summer camp.
His role has drawn scorn from both the military authorities, who have detained him on numerous occasions, and from local settlers who have previously assaulted him and have been suspected by the police of intending to assassinate him. He has complained of multiple forms of harassment,from repeated fines for petty traffic incidents where enforcement is otherwise loose, to having his business audited and receiving a huge tax bill to, he suspects, having his phone monitored and being subject to vicious homophobic taunts. Some brand him ironically as "the saviour of the Arabs" whose concern for "unfortunate" Arabs extends to assisting them when they are 'stealing' what settlers consider to be state lands in the southern Hebron hills and Gush Etzion.
In sworn testimony, the Israeli academic David Shulman recalled an incident that took place in Susia in 2005, where Nawi was subject to one such assault:-
"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. On one occasion in Susia, 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 witnessed such instances many times. He is committed to nonviolent protest in every fiber of his being".
In opposing such settler actions, which he says "serve the state's interests," Nawi is on record as saying that, "I’m here to change reality . . The only Israelis these people know are settlers and soldiers. Through me they know a different Israeli", and states his conviction that their acts "are destroying Israel. We (Israelis) have to live side by side with the Palestinians as good neighbours, not as conquerors". Mere presence can be, he maintains, a deterrence.
In one particular episode in January 2003, captured by Shulman's eyewitness account in his book, Dark Hope (2007), armed settlers wearing skullcaps and tzitzit fringes, and hailing from a daughter settlement of Ma'on called Ma'on farm (Havat Ma'on), charged down on Twaneh peasants sowing their traditional fields while Nawi was present. As shots were fired their way and stones rained down on the sowers, Shulman got the impression Nawi seemed to relish the moment, as he rallied those about him with the cry, "Don't be afraid. Stand your ground". Joseph Dana expresses a similar view. In an incident at the village of Safa, in the face of tear-gas and live ammunition, Nawi's reaction to Dana's anxiety was to smile, slap him on the back and quip: "quite an adventure you are experiencing!" His approach, Dana concluded, cuts the tension in the air.
Shulman has recently argued that he is one of three exponents of Gandhi's principle of satyagraha in the West Bank, alongside Abdallah Abu Rahmah and Ali Abu Awwad, with the difference that Nawi is Jewish, and has probably, unlike the former two, never read a word of Gandhi's writings, but simply 'reinvented Gandhian-style protest on his own.'.
Prior convictions and brushes with the law
In 1995, Nawi was convicted of statutory rape of a 15-year-old Palestinian boy, after their relationship had been reported to Israeli police by the boy's parents in 1992. The legal age for such relationships is 16 in Israeli law. He made two appeals in what was a five-year legal battle, and, after plea bargaining before the Jerusalem High Court, was finally sentenced to six months prison in September 1997. Nawi himself admits he knew the boy's real age: the boy, a hitchhiker, had asked him for a lift, he recalls, and, despite his own reservations, he maintains, appeared eager. They met on several occasions. He admits that the relationship was a mistake, irresponsibly put the boy in danger, and is something he will carry with him all his life. He was jailed in November of that year, but released after three months. He has had other convictions, including illegal use of a weapon and possession of drugs - he freely admits to smoking hash - for private use.
He has been charged for infractions in the West Bank several times. In the first half of 2004, the Israeli prosecution filed three suits against him. The first concerned an incident that occurred after he accompanied a convoy to a harvest at Twaneh, where he was joined by Israeli novelists Meir Shalev and David Grossman and anchorman Haim Yavin. Nawi rushed to put himself between the settlers and the harvesting fellahin to protect the latter, and a settler filed a complaint to police accusing Nawi of attacking him. In addition he was caught entering Area A, forbidden to Israelis, while bringing a consignment of clothes to people in Yatta. He was also arrested for giving a ride back into the West Bank to a Palestinian who had been residing without a permit in Israel; and he was indicted once on suspicion he had hindered a settler from filming him as he helped the Palestinians. In the last instance, his lawyer questioned the plaintiff regarding the fact he had filmed the event on Sabbath, whereupon the settler replied that he had a rabbinical ruling on halakha or Jewish law, which determined that Sabbath may be desecrated if the aim is to stop a goy from stealing hay and straw, as were the Palestinians in the area, which belonged to the settlers. Nawi was convicted by the Magistrate's court and sentenced to probation and a fine of NIS 500. It emerged that the halakhic judgement had been written by the plaintiff's father a day before the trial. On appeal, the conviction was overturned by a District Court when his lawyer Lea Tsemel showed that the land concerned was owned by Palestinians.
2007 arrest and trial
On 14 February 2007, Nawi went to assist Palestinian families whose homes, several tin and canvas shanties, were about to be razed as illegal structures. According to Shulman, these Palestinians at Um al-Kheir, which lies a few meters from rows of red-roofed settler villas at Carmel, require building permits for any house construction or extensions to their tents or shacks and such permits are almost impossible to obtain since on average, in the West Bank area administered by Israel, Area C, only one is released per month by the Israeli Civil Administration for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian residents there. Palestinians with their large families regularly build without permits, and the occupation authorities regularly issue demolition orders, of which some 20 are carried out each month.
Nawi considers such administrative actions "acts of war" since these Bedouin families lived in the area before the state of Israel came into existence. On that day, Nawi became involved in a clash with border police who had been sent to protect the bulldozers. Nawi threw himself before the bulldozers, and had to be dragged from their path to allow the demolition order to be executed. Though much of the incident was captured on video, the police testified later that, after they caught up with him inside a half-demolished shack, he raised his hands against them and resisted arrest in some 8 to 20 seconds not caught on video. According to Ben-Gurion university professor Neve Gordon, in the video Nawi is seen disarming a Palestinian woman of a rock she had picked up some minutes before the alleged assault. He was arrested, handcuffed and charged, although the assault later alleged was not included in the original police statements. The videotape shows that, handcuffed on a police truck, and taunted by the police for assisting Arabs, Nawi told them: "I was also a soldier, but I did not demolish houses, . . The only thing that will be left here is hatred".
Verdict, appeal, and aftermath
At his trial, judge Eilata Ziskind determined on March 19, on the basis of testimony from the two police officers, that he was guilty as charged: that he had pushed the two policemen, incited people, behaved in an unruly manner and interrupted police in the performance of their duties.
The decision led to a public outcry, with some 140,000 letters, according to Nawi, being sent to Israeli officials. Television footage filming the clash had been broadcast on Israel's Channel 1. According to Neve Gordon, the verdict was made notwithstanding "the very clear evidence" captured on film. Arik Ascherman, Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights, enjoined people to rally with him before a Court of Appeal.
Sentencing, in which he was expected to serve up to two years in jail, was originally scheduled for July 1, 2009 but subsequently postponed to September 21, 2009, after the judge had been presented with a petition organized in an international campaign conducted over the internet. In August 2009, in a preliminary hearing on sentencing the court heard several witnesses, such as Shulman and Galit Hasan-Rokem, testifying on Nawi's behalf. Aside from these academics, the former Deputy Attorney General of Israel, Yehudit Karp, speaking as a character witness and as a former head of a committee that had examined law and order issues in the West Bank, wrote that the situation there was strongly distorted in favour of the settlers, and that this justified the way Nawi, whom she called a modern-day Robin Hood, behaved in conditions she considered "surreal". She took the trial as the start of a dangerous process in that root problems are not addressed, and injustices wrought on Palestinians are not met by appropriate application of relevant laws.
In his own defence, given in an article in The Nation at the time, Nawi spoke of his eight years of activism in the area, and asked rhetorically: "was I the one who poisoned and destroyed Palestinian water wells? Was I the one who beat young Palestinian children? Did I hit the elderly? Did I poison the Palestinian residents' sheep? Did I demolish homes and destroy tractors? Did I block roads and restrict movement? Was I the one who prevented people from connecting their homes to running water and electricity? Did I forbid Palestinians from building homes?" He called relations between the military, civil administration, the judicial system, the police, and the Jewish settlers, whom he regards as the commanders, an "unholy alliance" where the end of securing full control of the Land of Israel justified any means. The Palestinians were dehumanized so that everything was permissible: land-theft, home-demolition, stealing water, arbitrary imprisonment, and on occasion murder. "In Hebrew," he added, "we say damam mutar, taking their blood is permissible". Elsewhere he is on record as arguing that the function of the violence is to "scare the Palestinians into not moving around or using their land for farming and agriculture." and that most settlers are motivated by religious ideas one cannot argue with, and that Arabs must leave. "They want Palestine."
Nawi's case elicited the attention of several prominent international figures, including Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Neve Gordon, who organized a campaign to protest against his imprisonment, calling him "one of Israel's most courageous human rights activists", and his arrest, conviction and pending imprisonment "politically motivated". Additionally, Yehudit Karp petitioned the court asking for clemency on the basis that the state had failed in its obligations to enforce the law against Israeli settlers in the Palestinian territories and that Nawi's actions against the settlers should be seen in that context. The group Jewish Voice for Peace presented the court with a petition signed by 20,000 people requesting clemency for Nawi.
On September 21, the Jerusalem Magistrates' Court sentenced him to a term of one month in prison, and fined him NIS 750 ($202), ordering him to pay an additional NIS 500 ($135) to each officer he was found guilty of assaulting.
Judge Ziskind, in her ruling, wrote that "even if there is a supreme goal, it cannot be used as an excuse to commit offenses", and that,
"Freedom of expression is not the freedom to incite and take actions that prevent or disrupt police work …Freedom of expression does not allow for riots, incitement or violence. Democracy cannot allow this, for if the law enforcement system collapses, anarchy will reign and democracy and freedom of expression will be no more. . .The fact that a person is acting in the name of one ideology or another, as justified as it may be, is no excuse to commit offenses in the name of that ideology, and in this matter there is no difference between left-wing activists, right-wing activists, religious, seculars, or other groups in conflict".
He was also put on three years probation, during which, if he insulted an officer, disturbed public order, or participated in an illegal protest, he would immediately suffer a further six months imprisonment. The Yesha Human Rights Organization, representing the Yesha or settlers' perspective, criticized the brevity of the one-month sentence, asserting that,
"One month in jail is like mocking the poor and emphasizes the selectivity of the law enforcement system in Judea and Samaria. (The system) allows Nawi to run wild, cooperate with Hamas members and hurt settlers, and remembers to enforce the law only when he hurts policemen".
Subsequent to this trial, Ha'aretz revealed that the prosecution had used as part of its case Nawi's prior conviction for statutory rape. The story resurfaced once more in 2011 when the Zionist and blogger John Connolly revealed that the Irish senator and presidential candidate David Norris, a former lover of Nawi's, had written a letter to the Israeli court requesting clemency for Nawi at the time.
On June 16, 2012, Nawi was convicted of 'offending public servants' by the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court, after he was alleged to have called a deputy battalion commander of the IDF a 'war criminal' during a clash at Susya in July 2009, when he and other activists tried to prevent Jewish settlers from establishing an outpost and depriving Palestinians of their land.
Films about Nawi
Nawi's story has been recounted in two documentary films. In 2005, Canadian-Jewish filmmaker Elle Flanders made a documentary entitled Zero Degree of Separation, which intertwined the story of her family in Jerusalem, for whom Ezra Nawi once worked as a gardener, with the lives of two gay couples, one of which was Nawi and his companion. In 2007, a further film about Nawi's life and work, 'Citizen Nawi' (HaEzrach Nawi) directed by Nissim Mossek and produced by Sharon Schaveet, premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival, where it won a special jury mention. The film documents the plight of the Bedouin, the difficulties of Israeli-Palestinian relations, the hardships of being gay. Made over five years on a shoe-string budget, it was judged a somewhat messy docu by Variety film critic Leslie Felperin, who thought its director "too in love with its subject to ask tough questions". Yet, he added, it managed "to expose both Israeli and Arab bigotry and has its heart in the right liberal place". Raya Morag sees the film as basically about deep-seated Israeli homophobia and racism.Dan DiLandro, reviewing for Educational Media Reviews , wrote that the film had a number of evident problems, technical and narrative, yet judged it "an important work that shed light on many of the area’s conflicts and dynamics". Michael Fox, writing for Jweekly, finds 'Citizen Nawi' to be "a rough-hewn profile in courage that diligently tallies the cost of conscience", and writes of the "discomfiting power" of a "raw and occasionally wrenching film", which stirs a "certain cognitive dissonance" when one "sees Nawi threatened and insulted in the crudest terms by religious Jewish settlers and embraced as a trusted friend by a Palestinian family living in a tent". For Fox, as the film follows Nawi's travails with his lover, run-ins with the police, and battles with settlers, it suddenly jolts one out of the initial impression that Nawi's activism has liberal roots:-
"One just assumes that Nawi has always been a liberal, and that his treks to the West Bank reflect a longstanding empathy for the Palestinians. It comes as a shock when he remarks well into the film that he wasn't particularly aware of or concerned about their day-to-day hardships until he got involved with Fuad".
Nawi's instincts, Fox concludes, are those of the humanist, and the director Mossek's gutsiest move was to have made "a film that doesn't aim to inspire us with platitudes but instead tries to shock us with the hard business of building a road to peace".
Nawi's example has also influenced the Israeli film-maker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz.
- Shulman 2009b
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- Curiel 2010
- Hasson 2005a
- Shulman 2009b:Shulman, when asked to define what he meant in calling Nawi an exponent of non-violent protest, replied: "I mean the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Henry David Thoreau".
- Shulman 2011a, p. 79
- Herschthal 2011
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- Gascón 2011:"El israelí Ezra Nawi, .. nació en Jerusalén en 1952, poco después de que sus padres emigrasen desde el Kurdistán iraquí,.."
- Shulman 2007, p. 30.
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- Steckner 2010 writes that his peculiar combination of qualities – gay, tradesman, Jewish yet of Arabic background, dark-skinned rather than bearing a white complexion - marks him out from the middle-class, intellectual Ashkenazis who make up much of the Israeli activist movement, and confounds all of the usual attributes on all sides. (cf."Doch anders als viele seiner israelischen Mitstreiterinnen ist der offen homosexuelle Aktivist kein weißer Aschkenazi aus bildungsbürgerlichem Hause, sondern Mizrahi, Jude arabischen Ursprungs und Klempner von Beruf. Mit dieser Mischung aus Eigenschaften durchkreuzt er die gängigen Zuschreibungen auf allen Seiten.")
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- Kressel 2003, p. 30 The book provides several historical, ecological and economic analyses of these Bedouin of the South Hebron Hills.
- Blumenthal 2013, pp. 199-200.
- Shulman 2013, in addition to Nawi, cites Dolev Rahat,Dr. Amiel Vardi andZviya Thier.
- Gavron 2008, p. 36.
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- 'Umm al-Khair and Sadat al-Tha’ala,' Ta'ayush January 28 2012
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- Gavron 2008, p. 38:"Nobody else would even try to grow anything in this place. There is absolutely no reason to prevent these people from living here . .The Jewish settlers are relentless in their battle against the Palestinian residents of the territories. Apart from harassing their children, they steal their goats, plough up their crops, and cut down their olive trees.. The assault on the olive trees is not confined to this Hebron hills location".
- Shulman 2013:'Although the settlers are invariably the spearhead of such attacks, the occupation system as a whole is geared towards dispossession. Under Israeli law, ownership of a field which is not cultivated for three years reverts to the state; Palestinian farmers have, at best, intermittent access to their lands, because of the settler attacks. Our job is to help them in the never-ending micro-struggle for each olive tree, each well, each scraggly, thorny patch on the hill.'
- Baram 2004: "I was attached to this community from the moment I came in contact with it, living like people in biblical times, working the land with the most primitive tools. And all of a sudden, they are in existential danger, prosecuted, having their fields burned, their wells poisoned, their elderly beaten and their land taken away from them. You can't just walk away".
- Shulman 2007, pp. 50–57 on the incident at Mufaqara, April 2, 2005. Nawi dumped the carcass of a samur weasel, a threatened species killed by the seeded poison, at the gates of the nearby Ma'on farm.
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- Schulman 2012, p. 98.
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- Hasson 2005a:"In the last few weeks, police intelligence agents have warned him on several occasions that the settlers intend to take him out. '"Whoever brings his head will be very highly regarded in the settlements",' says attorney Yael Barda, who helps the Palestinians in the region'.
- Levinson 2013.
- McCarthy 2009
- Katsover & Matar 2012
- Shulman 2007, pp. 57–63 describes the incident, which occurred on the 24 September 2005, in detail.
- McGirk 2009 refers to an incident where Nawi was hit over the head occurred during an attempt to haul a dead dog out of a well which settlers had put there to poison the Palestinian family's water supply.
- Samaha 2011
- Rößler 2011, p. 7:"Sie zerstören Israel. Wir müssen mit den Palästinensern als gute Nachbarn zusammenleben, nicht wie Eroberer".
- Shulman 2007, pp. 30–35,47.
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- Amnesty International 2011 reports that the Israeli NGO Bimkom calculated in 2008 that only 13 building permits were issued to Palestinians in the West Bank per year.
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- Cohen 2011, p. 216, n.21.
- Shemer 2013, pp. 232–233.
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- Morag, p. 235,n.16.
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