Ezra Nawi, the Activist Who Upset Jewish Supremacy

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Ezra Nawi in court in Jerusalem, July 16, 2019.
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The hatred of Israeli settlers, as well as of police and soldiers for Ezra Nawi is a badge of honor for him; proof that he disturbed the order of Jewish supremacy, which the former represent and bolster, and the latter secure. 

But Ezra did not defy this corrupt and corrupting order for the sake of honor, publicity or fame. Contempt for this order was part of his personality. His activism for the sake of human sanity was a natural part of his life, of his daily routine. To be more precise: He embodied sanity when, together with other activists from the Ta’ayush organization, he accompanied Palestinian shepherds that violent Jewish thugs were and are eyeing their land; when, alone, he entered a tent that the jaws of a Civil Administration bulldozer were preparing to crush; when he joined in restoration work on a road or water cistern in Palestinian communities that Israel seeks  to destroy; when, helping a lawyer,  he translated from Arabic to Hebrew the testimonies of Palestinian farmers who were being harassed; when he demonstrated in Sheikh Jarrah against the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes; and when he challenged the authority of armed soldiers and police officers.

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In the name of sanity, he gave out colorful balloons to children in the South Hebron Hills communities, to put a smile on their faces – children who, since birth, had been harassed by the representatives and guards of the master order. And on Fridays, in an emotional, elegant and generous gesture, he would distribute roses to the Women in Black who, since the first intifada, have been protesting in Jerusalem’s Paris Square for justice for Palestinians.

He died Saturday morning. Last Wednesday, lying in bed at home, attached to an IV (he could no longer drink or swallow on his own), furious that he was reduced to such a condition (the brain tumor had returned), he said to me, struggling to speak: “I could have done much more.” His handshake was still warm and strong.

Just three weeks earlier, he was still up and about and hugged me as if there were no coronavirus. A doctor from his HMO with a Russian accent came to check on him. She was embarrassed by the directness with which he informed her, “I’m gay.” She asked what he does in life. I told her: ‘’In the Soviet Union someone like him was called a dissident.” He still smoked (“Cigarettes aren’t going to be the thing that kills me”), and quoted one or two of the Arabic sayings he learned from his Iraqi grandmother, with which he always peppered our conversations, as if he himself had been born in Basra like his mother and oldest sister.

He embellished his words with his usual crassness and complained that his family wouldn’t let him kill himself. But he did that with warmth, and his siblings – who were in the room – heard him with love and understanding: Since he was operated more than half a year ago they had been with him 24/7, looking after everything , caring for him and yet aware of how hard the intrusion on his privacy was for him.

His friends from the small radical left in Jerusalem also visited frequently. They came after his stroke, shortly after a 2016 TV report on him aired, based on and inspired by the hatred of Jewish supremacists towards him;  they were with him before and after the operation to remove the tumor from his head, and until his death. And now everyone in that WhatsApp group is mourning his passing and declaring how there is no one like Ezra when it comes to battling evil.

Here I must differ with them. Leftist thinking needs to refrain from ranking everything and from taking a binary view; it should be grateful for the rich tapestry of activism. There are other activists working in Ta’ayush and other groups or individually who dedicate their time and energy to stick a pin in the wheels of the dispossession enterprise. They are not as extrovert as Ezra was, nor as colorful; they don’t have the same traits, skills and flaws (what human doesn’t have flaws?). Each in his or her own way, they are dissidents who despise all supremacy and Jewish supremacy in particular. It’s not their fault that their numbers are few, and that others who think like them don’t pitch in. It’s not their fault that the evil is so powerful.

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