Ezra Nawi. A Baghdadi Jew, born in Israel, fluent in Arabic. A man like and unlike all others.
One of those days. Settlers have blocked the path the schoolchildren take to school; soldiers and police turn up, numb at heart. We open the path. The standoff goes on for hours; we aren’t prepared to give up. At the end someone says, “It’s already hopeless, and it’s getting worse.” Ezra says: “No. It’s like water dripping onto a rock. Speaking truth is like that. It takes time, but eventually the rock gives way.”
February, 2007. Another day of house demolitions in Umm al-Khair. Ezra throws himself down in front of the bulldozers. They arrest him and handcuff him, and he says to the soldiers: “Only hate will come of this. I was also once a soldier, but I never destroyed a person’s home. You leave nothing behind you except hate.” How fiercely he hated hate.
Ezra, always unpredictable. Usually some wild idea would occur to him at the end of a long day out on the hills, just as we were about to head home. Then before we knew it we’d be driving with him through the alleys of Hebron city with a jeep of soldiers on our tail. He drove like James Bond, and I have to admit it was fun in a way, if you could forget about the part that wasn’t. Most of us have memories like this. Once it happened out on the hills; an army jeep approached us, meaning no good, and Ezra took off in his rickety car over the rocks and thorns on barely visible tracks meant for particularly adroit goats. After twenty minutes or so of the chase, we managed to melt into the landscape, thereby achieving my deepest ambition.
During the eighteen years I knew him, he was usually under arrest, or on the verge of being arrested, or just released from jail. Unknowingly, he embodied the Gandhian principle, or rather its negation: the best way to maintain an unjust system, Gandhi said, is to obey its laws.
Workdays, cleaning out a cave in Jinbah, the buried home of a family. The army filled in most of the caves in a series of devastating actions in the 1990’s and again in 2000. We are inching downward, bucket by bucket. Ezra watches us, amused. Loses patience. “Let me show you how to use a shovel,” he says. He knows. A few minutes later, the first step of stone, the entrance to the cave, comes to light. A lost world revealed. How many buried homes did this man dig out from the earth?
Or clearing the road to Bi’r al-‘Id, stone by stone. It takes an hour or two to make a square meter, maybe a bit more, passable. Hot heavy work, no less futile than what Sisyphus has to do every day. The soldiers are certain to come and tear it up, and we will have to start all over again. It’s a special kind of happiness.
And Ezra shows up without fail with fresh falafel in pita, still warm, for all of us, from his favorite stall in the town of Yata, in Area A. He’s also a good cook. Baghdadi specialties, on evenings when we meet in his flat to plan.
Margaret Olin: “Please wait in the van a minute while I pick up a snack for us.” An hour later, after Ezra has chatted up everyone anywhere near the stall, he reappears with falafel. And no, I was not angry. Knowing Ezra was an honor and a blessing. And fun. (Margaret Olin) Yatta, 2015.
Word reaches Ezra that settlers have kidnapped a shepherd and are holding him in one of the settlements near the green line, far to the south. Ezra drives me and another David to some point in the middle of the desert and says: “Go that way. You’ll find another Palestinian on a donkey. Follow him. Find the shepherd.” Then he’s off, with many more urgent things to do.
It’s high noon, hot the way a desert gets in summer. We head into the hills, climb, descend, climb. And then, sure enough, we see a man on a white donkey. “I was waiting for you,” he says. “Follow me.” I don’t know if you know how fast a donkey can run. Within minutes we are again alone with the sun, sand, and stones. A couple of hours later we emerge, without the kidnapped shepherd, back on to the main north-south road. No sign of Ezra either.
Ezra, Nissim, Maria, Eileen, me. We go to Beit ‘Ummar to bring a copy of my book, Freedom and Despair, to the family of Isa Sleby, to whom the book is dedicated. Isa was Ezra’s friend, like almost everyone else in Beit ‘Ummar but more so, because Isa was fearless, a man of peace and of action. Isa died in 2012.
We sit with his son ‘Ala, his mother, and a new grandchild whom Isa never knew. There are no pictures of Ezra from that day, we’re not supposed to be there, he has the usual court cases and suspended sentences hanging over him. But I see him now with the baby in his arms. Like a proud father or grandfather, like Isa would have been. The tenderness that was always in him came out when a child was nearby. And if a child was hurt, bruised, slightly cut, he would call me over to clean and bandage the wound, and the child would cross his arms and refuse to let me touch him. Then Ezra would softly, infinitely slowly, coax him to open up.
We are driving fast down the main highway, route 60, empty desert on either side. Early morning. In the distance, a ball rolls onto the road. Ezra stops the car; the child retrieves the ball. That is all. But I know: that tenderness was at the heart of the toughness, like when settlers would attack and he would shout to us, “Don’t be afraid, and don’t retreat.”
Only with the army officers, or sometimes the police, was it different. He truly despised them and was happy to let them know it. For Ezra, every officer was mindlessly or (more likely) knowingly complicit in the crimes.
One of them sued him because Ezra called him a war criminal. Another sued him because when the officer told him he was retiring, Ezra cited the Arabic proverb: “One dog goes and another dog comes.” That was referred to, among us, as the Dog Case. There were many others. Sometimes I tried to get him to bite his tongue and stop cursing them, because it almost always meant more trouble. Usually I failed.
Umm al-Khair, a spring morning, we are out with the shepherds on their land. But the settlers of Carmiel don’t want them there, so they call the army. The officer tells us that we are standing on “state lands” and have to leave. I say to him: “Really? And if I am walking down Emeq Refaim Street in Jerusalem, which is also supposedly state land, do I have to leave if a settler says he doesn’t want me there?” The officer is unimpressed. Ezra takes me aside and says, “Talk to those soldiers, explain to them what they are doing. You have the words, you are a professor, give them a lecture.” I understand that he is playing for time and also making a point, taking a stand out there in the hills. It’s another way to use the magical word “No,” a word Ezra may have invented. The word you use to defy soldiers, police, security goons, and similar creatures.
So I give a five-minute introduction to the Ottoman land law followed by a harangue, not overly harsh, about the crime the soldiers are about to commit. I look straight at them, searching for their eyes. They look bored, all but one. Maybe something touched him. Maybe he suddenly saw the Palestinians as human beings. Or maybe he was curious about these Martians who had dropped in on a Shabbat morning to stand with the shepherds. Meanwhile, thanks to Ezra and my filibuster, the goats got a few more minutes to graze.
The following is from Jyotirmaya Sharma, professor of political thought at the University of Hyderabad and a specialist on Mahatma Gandhi. A work day in Samu‘a that ended with a violent charge by the Yassam special forces: All of us were trying to clear the roadblock that the Israeli security forces had created on that dusty stretch in South Hebron. I was picking up mud and stones with my hands. I must have done this for just 10 minutes when Ezra came up to me and said: “You have done enough. You have shown your solidarity with us and our cause. Now you must just stand and watch. The soldiers are here already. There might be arrests. You are our guest. We don’t want you to spend the night in a Jerusalem prison, or worse still, in a South Hebron prison.
Bi’r al-‘Id, after a day of cleaning the wells that the army and the settlers stopped up with stones and dirt. Ezra, encased in mud, emerges from the depths of a well where he’s been working. A few days ago he was released from a month in prison for trying to stop soldiers from demolishing that home in Umm al-Khair.
I ask him how it was in prison. “Akhla—great,” he says; “highly recommended.” That’s the Gandhian streak in him. He seems at peace.
“I hear you’re feeling optimistic,” I say.
“Yes. Just look around. Two years ago we didn’t even know the name of this place. These people had been driven off their land, the houses and terraces were destroyed, the wells stopped up. Now we’ve brought them back and stood by them, and we’ve helped them to stand up to the settlers and the soldiers and not to be afraid. They are here to stay. They are home. You can train people so they become able to resist. Even a few people like that make a huge difference. In the end we will win. So of course I’m optimistic. You must be optimistic, too, otherwise why would you be here?” [from Freedom and Despair (2019) by David Shulman]
Click to enlarge: Nissim Mossek has made two films about Ezra over the course of many years. Above are some of his pictures, including one I made of Nissim with Ezra from my allotted place in the van (Margaret Olin)
January, 2016. Right-wing moles are planted in Ta’ayush by the Ad Kan extremists. A sting operation sets a trap for Ezra, and he falls into it. He is arrested, interrogated for several weeks, released. It seems the police can’t find anything worthy of a charge. In the end, they come up with a ludicrous accusation of making contact with the Palestinian security forces– ironically, a crime enshrined in the Oslo peace agreements, the anathema of the Israeli right. Our lawyers say there is no chance this charge will stand up in court. [read our post here]
But shortly after Ezra’s release, and probably because of the severe harassment, he suffers a stroke. He recovers, regains most of his mobility, but those of us who know him can see that he’s changed.
Still, he comes with us to South Hebron and walks the rugged terrain of the Jordan Valley, at a slower pace; there are many moments when the old spark is there.
May 11, 2019, Wadi Swaid: We are standing in protest outside a new “illegal outpost”, one of dozens. The settlers have had their shabbat lunch. The soldiers have arrived on cue. They want us to leave but they have no signed order. The afternoon drags on. In the midst of the standoff, Ezra turns up with his walking sticks. He unfolds a chair and sits down a few meters from the settlers’ tent. Insouciant as always, he addresses them.
“Shabbat shalom, we’ve come to join you for the third Shabbat meal, seuda shlishit. But I don’t notice any signs of hospitality. When our father Abraham had guests, he would kill a sheep and cook it for them. That’s what the Bible says. I’m not asking for a sheep, but at least a little something would be nice.“ He sighs. “The generations are declining.” [read the post about this here]
In the summer of 2020, Ezra has another stroke, and the doctors discover a tumor in his brain. A further series of minor strokes follows in the autumn. His days in the field with his friends are over. His enemies finally got him, this man who undermined the vile premise on which the Occupation stands.
Ezra Nawi died on January 9, age 69. He was ready. Twice he called me to say goodbye. As usual, he also joked a little. “Probably we’ll meet again. You’re an Indian, aren’t you, you believe in reincarnation.” I tried to tell him that I loved him and that I, and all the rest of us, were infinitely thankful for what he gave us and taught us. When I last saw him a few days ago, he was able to get up and walk, slowly, by himself. We sat in the winter sunlight on the green-leafed porch, and he said, “I did something good with my life.”
text: david shulman © 2021, photographs: margaret olin © 2021 except where otherwise indicated.