An Unlikely Activist

BY Michael Luongo

January 13 2011 4:15 PM ET

EZRA MAWI PHONE X390 (MICHAEL LUONGO) | ADVOCATE.COM

Yet gay Israeli activists do work on the issue, people like Hagai El-Ad, former executive director of Jerusalem Open House, the city’s gay center, and now executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. He was arrested in January 2010 for protesting the Jewish takeover of Sheik Jarrah, a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem. “I believe that it is the responsibility of any minority fighting for its rights to see beyond its own issues and identify the broader context,” El-Ad says.

Seeing Ezra in action, one might wonder if by fighting against the occupation as an openly gay man, he might be helping the cause of Palestinian LGBT rights. I ask him if any young Palestinian men had ever confided in him, but he laughs at my question.

“Never — I am in a position where they would be too ashamed to come to me,” he says, being older and always around officials. “I don’t think they know what is gay,” explaining that Palestine does not have “cities like Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, even Beirut,” with gay infrastructure. “Obviously there are gay people, but there is not a gay way of life. That is Western.” My own observation is that even in cosmopolitan Palestinian cities like Ramallah, gay life is virtually nonexistent.

Ezra says he also has a hard time figuring out who’s gay in a rural, Palestinian context. “There were two young men,” he tells me, “playing and jumping, near the goats, and even when I took them in my car.” He then mimics two men embracing, saying, “I think they have something, so I ask Ali, and I told him it is very nice love, a very nice relationship they have. He says to me, ‘the love of shepherds.’”

Some kind of Palestinian Brokeback Mountain image comes to my mind, and I ask for clarification, but even for Ezra, it was mysterious. Young men “are very erotic at this time,” Ezra said, “all the time outside and don’t see much people. But as second thought, it is a mistake to see it and judge it through Western eyes. It is not fair to them and not fair to us,” adding, “I don’t think it is correct to explain this physical touch.”

Ezra says sex is the last thing on his mind in Palestine, even if he joked about good-looking men and Ali. Nor does he want another Palestinian boyfriend, calling his two-year relationship with Fuad “a mistake,” adding, “It is very difficult for a mixed couple. Whether gay or straight. Everyone is against you.”

Still, the experience shaped his activism. He only wishes more gays in Israel understood. In Citizen Nawi he said, “Homophobia, racism, nationalism are connected.”

Reflecting on his time as a gay rights activist decades ago in Jerusalem, Ezra tells me, “I think gay people as a minority should have more sympathy to the suffering of other people. But I find most of the gay people are not as compassionate. Every gay community is a picture of the bigger society. The society is very resistant, and the gay society is no different in their position on Arabs.”

I saw Ezra again in Jerusalem this past May at the weekly Friday Sheik Jarrah protest, where I planned to see El-Ad. The crowds had been corralled into a fenced area, with Arab children climbing the chain links for a better view. Hundreds of secular Jews stood on a cliff overlooking the road, shouting “thief” in Hebrew at Orthodox families, as police escorts pushed away photographers. It was hard to make sense of the chaos, and I never found El-Ad, but at one point the crowd parted like the Red Sea, revealing a familiar dusty jeep, Ezra inside, beaming. Protesters broke into smiles and shouted his name, and even the police seemed to respect him, a few shaking his hand through the window.

Ezra makes an impression that is hard to ignore. Somehow, despite his legal troubles, he seems to win people over. Ultimately, though, he could not win over the judge in his case, and he was sentenced to a month in jail, served ironically mostly in June, Gay Pride Month the world over. Afterward, Ezra told me, “A month in jail is really not bad,” and that while he was inside, “other people respect me because they know exactly what I did.” In fact, he found it almost relaxing. “No phone calls. No duties. I was reading a lot, and you know, it was interesting to see the victims of the state and victims of the society.” If anything, Ezra felt sorry for Israelis working in the prison. “They are miserable people. On a salary they are prisoners for life.”

Jail was merely a blip for Ezra, strengthening his resolve. When we spoke by phone in July, it was a Friday. He was in Sheik Jarrah, protesting once again.

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