Buried deep beneath the melancholic headlines of the Israel/Palestine conflict, far beyond the fog of the Gaza war, lies a story of love and activism in a region inhospitable to either. It’s a story which offers us insight into a very different world, and compels us to challenge our biases and prejudices. This is the story of Ezra Nawi, a gay Israeli plumber turned human rights activist, whose kind heart and generous spirit have made him an important fixture of the Israeli anti-occupation movement.
Like any symbol of resistance, Nawi has been a thorn in his government’s side, so they moved to take him out of commission.
Today, Nawi is awaiting trial for attempting to disrupt the demolition of a Palestinian family’s home in Hebron. But he was luckier than Rachel Corrie, an American peace activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer trying to do the same thing.
Nawi was born in 1952 to parents who moved to Israel from Iraq. As a gay “Arab sympathizer,” he grew up on the fringes of Israeli society. His story is documented in the biopic Citizen Nawi, which I recently saw at the Inside Out Film Festival. The documentary follows him as he fights for acceptance in his own community, and for Palestinian rights in the occupied territories.
Much of his activism took place in Tuwane, a small Palestinian village of stone caves and dilapidated homes situated on the hills overlooking Southern Hebron. For many years, Nawi devoted much of his time and efforts to serving its inhabitants, helping them build a school and a small clinic. In the process, he landed himself in a mountain of debt, and yet it never bothered him.
What do bother him are Israeli injustices. In the documentary, Nawi recalls one incident in which a Palestinian herder was ambushed by a group of Israeli settlers wearing masks, killing his father and stealing his two donkeys. With little regard for his own safety (or that of his cameraman), Nawi decides to venture into one of the settlements to investigate further. There, we see the settlers haranguing him with juvenile insults and homophobic slurs. But Nawi unflinchingly takes the barrage of insults in stride, and confronts the settlers on behalf of the Palestinians whose cattle were stolen and olive trees burnt down.
As professor Neve Gordon of Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, Israel noted in The Guardian, Nawi’s case casts serious doubts as to Israel’s status as a democratic country. In the wake of Israel’s recent elections—which brought to power a right-wing extremist as well as its recent crackdown on Jewish activists and contentious objectors, one starts to wonder how much more Israel can get away with while still being called a democracy.
We are frequently reminded of the consequences of dissidence in Israel’s neighbouring countries. In Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and others, activists, journalists, and even bloggers who criticize their government’s policies are usually handed outrageous sentences. On the other hand, Israel as a democracy should be held to a higher standard. But what kind of democracy invests more time into cracking down on unarmed activists than trying to stop homicidal settlers from assaulting their neighbours?
The flipside to this otherwise depressing story is that it gives a faint glimmer of hope. As someone who has grown deeply resentful of Israel after its bloody foray into Gaza, Nawi’s story hit me as a stark example that Israeli society is much more diverse than I originally thought.
The film impelled me to rethink my notions of homosexuality, even though I went into the theatre certain it wouldn’t. Having grown up in a region hostile to gays, I’ve always had difficulty accepting homosexuality as normal, and I try to avoid the subject whenever it comes up. Yet somehow, while watching Citizen Nawi I couldn’t ignore the empathy I felt for Nawi’s plight. Here’s a gay man who dedicated his life to helping a desperate population–how can you not admire that?
His story also begs the question: how often do we hear about people like Nawi in today’s media? For god’s sake, the man should be a hero. And yet, sadly, he is marginalized at the expense of slanderous campaigns which vilify homosexuals as social deviants. Even worse is the fact that some religious figures spend their lives berating homosexuality, thereby offering nothing to their community in the way of humanitarianism. Instead, they merely give them ignorance and intolerance.
Nawi’s willingness to reach out to the Palestinians can serve as a springboard for intercultural dialogue, which is critical to jump-starting the peace process.
Mahmoud is an editor for Yalla Journal, a collaborative cross-cultural publication which anthologizes the personal narratives of young Arabs and Jews vis-a-vis the Israel/Palestine Conflict. Yalla is currently accepting submission for the next edition.