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In Memory of Ezra

The left-wing Israeli activist Ezra Nawi died in January at age 69

Joseph Dana
February 16, 2021
Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images
Israeli left-wing activists hold posters outside a Jerusalem courthouse during a demonstration to ask for the release of Ezra Nawi, on Jan. 18, 2016Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images
Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images
Israeli left-wing activists hold posters outside a Jerusalem courthouse during a demonstration to ask for the release of Ezra Nawi, on Jan. 18, 2016Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

I remember the first time I met Ezra Nawi. I was working on a master’s degree in medieval Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University in 2007 and a friend suggested we go to the South Hebron Hills with a group called Ta’ayush. I was fascinated if not a little nervous. I was aware of nonviolent anti-occupation groups like Ta’ayush but wasn’t exactly clear what they did. By that time, I had been living in Jerusalem for about a year and the romance of the place was slowly being replaced with the stark reality of division lurking behind every corner. As my perspectives on Israel shifted, the chance to venture to the West Bank with a group of Israelis breaking down barriers with Palestinians was difficult to pass up. At the very least, it would be a new perspective on what was happening in the West Bank.

We met the group one Saturday morning in Liberty Bell Park in West Jerusalem. Standing in the empty park was a group of mismatched people with few clear leaders. There were Hebrew University professors like David Shulman, Amiel Vardi, and the Holocaust scholar Amos Goldberg. There were also retirement-age Israelis and a handful of youngsters outfitted in hiking gear and sun-stained backpacks.

Considering the activity we planned to do that day—accompany Palestinian shepherds in the southern West Bank as they tended their flocks under threat of settler and military violence—I should have been more concerned about the haphazard structure of the group. But it was difficult to feel too nervous surrounded by these older and established activists.

We waited around in the calm quiet of an early Saturday morning in Jerusalem. Eventually, two minivans pulled up with Palestinian drivers and we piled in among spirited conversation about various roadblocks and checkpoints the army had set up. An earlier group of activists had been prevented entry into the West Bank because the army said they were planning a protest. The army was looking for left-wing activists and a decision needed to be made to take back roads or risk being stopped at the main checkpoint on Route 60, the primary thoroughfare through the southern West Bank.

As I came to understand, Ta’ayush activists had been going to the South Hebron Hills for years and these types of decisions were common on Saturday excursions. The activists had established deep relationships with several Palestinian farming communities and viewed these people as friends rather than props in some grand political drama concerning the future of the Israeli state.

Eventually, the decision was made to test our luck and not deviate from the original plan. The anticipation of the newcomers was palpable and just as we were about to leave, Ezra pulled up in a dirty pickup truck that looked like he lived in it. Given the amount of time he spent in that truck, driving backward and forward from South Hebron to his flat in Jerusalem, he basically lived in that thing.

We made it through the checkpoint with no problem. Then we accompanied shepherds around one of the more aggressive settlements in the area—Havat Ma’on. It was a lot to process: hearing stories about how settlers attacked school kids as they waited for their bus in the morning and how the military would arrive at the settlers’ request to arrest or detain Israeli activists.

Ezra was everywhere at once. One moment, he’d be right next to you and the next he’d be shuttling someone to another village or stopped by an impromptu military checkpoint. The military and the settlers had a deep-burning disdain for Ezra and would take every opportunity to make his life hell. But he took it in stride and continued undeterred, appearing everywhere at once and always making jokes with an enormous smile on his face, switching between Arabic and Hebrew. Like a performer, he would enter a space and immediately light it up. His energy was infectious.

Anyone who spent a little time with Ta’ayush has a story about Ezra randomly popping up, often carrying falafel from Yatta, a major Palestinian town in the South Hebron Hills. Ezra was a plumber by trade but I don’t recall him working all that often. A Mizrahi Jew from an Iraqi family, Ezra was born in Jerusalem in 1951. During the second intifada, he became deeply involved with Ta’ayush. By the time I met Ezra, he had a reputation as one of the leading activists in the South West Bank. In 2007, he ran into a Palestinian house that was being destroyed by the military in the South Hebron Hills. Two border police officers alleged that Ezra assaulted them while they tried to remove him from the structure.

Two years later, Ezra was found guilty of the charge and sentenced to a month in jail. By then, a film had been produced about Ezra’s activism with footage of the house demolition. I was at Ezra’s sentencing in 2009 and remember the surprised look on the judge’s face as several European diplomats arrived at the courthouse in a show of solidarity with Ezra. Then his lawyers presented profiles of his case from The New York Times and Time. The coverage didn’t sway the judge’s opinion. After the 2009 verdict and the attention the case drew in the foreign media, he would become one of the faces of Israeli direct action activism in the West Bank.

Ezra was sentenced to a month in prison in a verdict that read, “even if there is a supreme goal, it cannot be used as an excuse to commit offenses.” Speaking to the Israeli media after the verdict, Ezra said that “the entire system wants to see me in jail.” He was right, but it wasn’t a new story. His life was already defined by his relationship with the state. In 1995, Ezra was convicted of statutory rape of a 15-year-old Palestinian boy. After years of appeals, an Israeli high court upheld the conviction but ruled that the relationship was consensual and sentenced Ezra to a six-month jail sentence as part of a plea bargain of which he served three months.

Ezra was Ta’ayush, for better or worse. Compared with other Israeli anti-occupation groups like the Anarchists Against the Wall, Ta’ayush focused its efforts on helping Palestinian farmers in the South Hebron Hills who were under constant threat of attack by settlers and the military. Some days the excursions were tiring and other days extremely enjoyable. We would get up early and arrive home late. My fondest memories of the group were the few days when the settlers and the army simply left us alone. We would walk through the rolling hills or help rebuild a farm structure destroyed by settlers or the army. Other days would be more intense, especially if the settlers were feeling aggressive.

Without fail, Ezra would evaluate the mood whenever he appeared. As I got more involved with Ta’ayush and spent more time joining them on weekends and even weekdays, I got to know Ezra better. He lived in a modest apartment on a leafy street in West Jerusalem. It was clear he didn’t spend much time there but it was the site of several Ta’ayush meetings. He even kept an old refrigerator in the entryway to his place. Every guest was asked to put their phones in the freezer so they couldn’t be turned into listening devices by the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service. I always thought it was a bit much but the development of companies like NSO, which have perfected the art of hacking phones, makes me think Ezra’s concern was well placed.

It’s impossible to understand Ezra and his actions outside of the relentless decadeslong attack on anti-occupation activism. The Israeli government has devoted handsome resources to persecuting Israeli activists, eroding their funding, and putting their leaders in jail. Ezra was a primary target and the state stopped at little to limit his freedoms and exacted a price for his political activists.

As an extension of government efforts to tarnish Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) activists, right-wing civil society groups devised plans to infiltrate Israeli anti-occupation groups like Ta’ayush. One such group called Ad Kan used Ta’ayush’s informal structure against itself with undercover operatives. Posing as activists, two infiltrators enmeshed themselves in Ta’ayush and became close to Ezra around 2015, after I had left the country.

As their friendship deepened, Ezra told one of the undercover Ad Kan activists that Palestinians would ask him about selling land in the West Bank to Israelis. Under Palestinian law, such a transaction is a capital offense. Knowing full well that any Palestinian caught engaging in such transactions risked torture, imprisonment, or even death by the Palestinian security forces, Ezra was secretly filmed acting as a sort of middle man ratting out Palestinians to the authorities. The video footage was eventually screened on the Israel Channel 2 flagship investigative news program Uvda (“fact”) in 2016.

Prime Minister Netanyahu used the episode to repeat popular government talking points that Israeli human rights groups didn’t actually care about human rights or Palestinians. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon bizarrely connected the event to BDS activities and argued that Ezra’s actions showed that Israeli human rights activists would quickly sell out Palestinians to tarnish Israel’s image. On the other side of the political spectrum, Ha’aretz columnists Gideon Levy and Amira Hass pointed out that Uvda presented virtually no background on Ad Kan, its links with the Israeli government, or how it obtained the footage.

The aftermath of the Uvda episode doesn’t overshadow the grave reality of Ezra’s reprehensible actions. Regardless of one’s political views, handing someone over to authorities with the knowledge that they could be tortured or killed is beyond the pale.

Shortly after Ezra’s sentencing in 2009, my perspective began to change. I went deeper into the West Bank to villages like Ni’iln and Nabi Saleh on Friday afternoons, where more aggressive protests against the Israeli separation wall and settlement expansion were taking place. It was a gradual and then sudden shift that resulted in my spending less time with Israelis and more with Palestinians.

At the same time, a popular Israeli protest movement started to take shape in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Several Palestinian families were targeted for eviction in the neighborhood as part of Israel’s plans to encircle Jerusalem with a string of Israeli settlements. In the beginning, the protest movement was raw and organic but it was quickly co-opted by mainstream liberal Zionist activists and, at least in my opinion, became more about domestic Israeli politics than the fate of the families that would eventually lose their homes.

At the time, I wrote the following: “Sheikh Jarrah is becoming an example of one of the most perverse forms of Zionist domination—the hijacking of a Palestinian struggle in order to play out internal issues of Zionist practice within Israeli society. Non-Zionist Israeli leftists have realized this trend a long time ago and left the movement. The challenge facing the Israeli left will be to deprioritize their own Zionist struggle, and instead embrace the ideas of Palestinian solidarity that the movement was founded on. If these political movements can coexist in Sheikh Jarrah, the struggle will be truly revolutionary.”

After I published the piece, Ezra called me and said we needed to talk. I remember sitting in his kitchen as he ate dinner and glanced over the newspaper. He told me I needed to cool it, in his own lighthearted way, because it wasn’t nice to air such grievances in public spaces. While he agreed with many sentiments that I expressed, it wasn’t helpful for the movements that were being built.

By the time we spoke, I was already on my own path as it pertained to the Israeli left. I stopped spending as much time in the South Hebron Hills and was eyeing my own move to Ramallah. But Ezra kept in touch with me and wasn’t afraid to tell me to calm down. That warm but honest attitude exemplified something profound about him. Eventually, I moved to Istanbul and lost touch with Ezra. The state continued its relentless drive to crush him.

He took the government’s attempts to silence him in stride but years of confronting the state took their toll. He was diagnosed with cancer last year and died quickly thereafter at the age of 69. As we spoke about Sheikh Jarrah in his kitchen, I remember thinking that he must feel lonely. But he wasn’t alone in the traditional sense. His life was defined by his close circle of activists that dedicated themselves to struggling for justice. He wasn’t talking to me about my work because the ideas upset him, but rather because he didn’t want too much discord in his family. In the people that he spent his life with.

Ezra was a flawed and complex character, in many ways emblematic of the types of people who dedicate their lives to a struggle. But there’s no doubt his dedication to his beliefs will live long past his death.

A version of this piece appeared in the author’s newsletter, Notes from a Fractured Country.

Joseph Dana is a writer living in Cape Town, South Africa.