An Unlikely Activist

By Michael Luongo

Originally published on Advocate.com January 13 2011 3:15 PM ET

The two men’s soft banter contrasts with their rough manual labor. They call each other “habibi,” Arabic for “darling,” as they belt out commands amid the harsh clanging of the metal pipes crashing into the bed of an ancient truck. On its own, habibi has no romantic meaning for men, but I also hear them say “karim” back and forth, meaning “gentle” or “kind” one, never sure if it's another term of endearment or talk about the work. The heavy pipes need several men to lift them carefully so they do not fall onto the excited children who have gathered in this blackened, scrap strewn metal shop in Yatta, in Palestine’s West Bank.

It’s an unusual scene beyond language.

The center of attention is the activist Ezra Nawi. At 59 years old, he is a Mizrahi, or Arab, Jew, born to Iraqi immigrants. Ezra is also openly gay. He is in trouble with the law, but not on this side of the Barrier Wall. It’s the Israeli government and Army that have launched a campaign against him, hauling him and his Palestinian former lover, Fuad, through the Israeli legal system. Ezra’s homosexuality is one weapon used against him.

Ezra has most recently been accused of striking an Israeli policeman during a February 2007 Palestinian house demolition, recorded in the 2007 film Citizen Nawi by Nissim Mossek. As the house collapses, Ezra and the policeman run in.

“In these eight seconds, when I am not seen by anyone, they say I assaulted the officer,” Ezra tells me. The incident created years of legal uncertainty for Ezra and is one of Israel’s most visible cases in the ongoing Palestinian conflict, ultimately landing Ezra in jail. Avichay Sharon, the legal assistant to Ezra’s lawyer, Lea Tsemel, explained it’s normal for cases to go on for years in Israel’s overburdened courts, especially those with “political contexts, political implications to them,” in which decisions are purposely delayed.

But on this cold winter day, Ezra is unbothered. All day long, he has anticipated seeing Ali, the owner of the truck, a kaffiyeh headdress–covered Palestinian man with a sun-withered face. “Ali is a great guy. Actually I offer him to marriage,” Ezra tells me, smiling mischievously. Of course, I know this won’t come to pass, seeing as Ali is married with children.

Ezra has the support of famous Jewish liberals like Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, and Neve Gordon, who in a joint letter called him “one of Israel's most courageous human rights activists.” Profiled in The New York Times, The Guardian, and Salon, Ezra has somehow escaped American gay media attention.

Ezra is humble, working-class, a liberal gay version of Joe the Plumber, his occupation. It shows in the small Jerusalem apartment where I meet him before our day in the West Bank to see his latest project, a windmill generating electricity for a Palestinian refugee camp. That’s what the pipes are for. Dressed in loose khaki military-style clothes, Ezra is always smiling bashfully. With his expressive hand movements and worn-out hat, he reminds me of Zorba the Greek’s Anthony Quinn. He devilishly tells me he reminds most foreigners of Sean Connery.

We spend the day driving Ezra’s dusty jeep, joined by Elad Orian, a 35-year-old Israeli engineer from COMET-ME, or Community, Energy and Technology in the Middle East, the group financing the windmill. Technically, it’s illegal for Jewish Israelis to enter the West Bank’s Hebron area. I worry more about how long it takes to get there, but as soon as I ask the question, Jerusalem still visible from the rear window, Ezra announces, “We’re already in the West Bank,” adding, “People don’t want to see their backyard. It’s very convenient to ignore it.” Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank combined are the size of New Jersey, only with a few million more people.

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We enter a haunting, timeless land — rock-strewn Mediterranean hills,
sheep chewing on the scrub, thick, heaving olive trees scattered into
the distance. We’ve driven into the Bible. Israelis make a land claim
based on the ancient text, but Palestinian life most closely resembles
it.

Ezra points out the differences between Palestinian farms and
Israeli settlements, explaining, “Israelis are very neat and tight; it
is modern. The Palestinians, it is families, small pieces, more
traditional.” To my right I see dozens of stone enclosures, each with a
tiny stone house, like something from The Flintstones, where shepherds
stay. In contrast, the settlers’ land is green with machine-tilled rows,
greenhouses abutting the roadway.

The pastoral view is disturbed by
the constant ringing of Ezra’s two phones. He balances calls in English,
Arabic, and Hebrew, telling me he comes out “six, two, four times a
week, whatever is needed.”

Once in Yatta, Ezra notices my fascination
with young men on the street. “There are a lot of studs,” he laughs,
using a vulgar Hebrew expression, throwing me off guard. It’s what makes
Ezra intriguing: a constant switch from serious to silly. He adds that
his varied background — being a gay Arab Jew — lets him work in different
communities and help Palestinians. “Every minority should have sympathy
with other minorities.”

As we exit the jeep, locals shout “Ezra,
Ezra,” like he’s a rock star, but soon socializing gives way to work, as
we head to the metal shop constructing the windmill.

Here, two
young men in their early 20s, Saber and Saad, swarm over thick, crude
metal pipes. The men’s hands aren’t just work-worn but literally cut
down, random fingers missing from industrial accidents. One lifts his
shirt to show me a gash. This safety record is why Ezra wanted to
supervise moving the windmill, but he has been hands-off with other
aspects of the project.

“They had never done such a technical thing,”
Ezra tells me. The thick pipes can also serve as rocket launchers and
are blocked for import into Palestine by Israel. Ezra says, “We could
have bought it in Israel, but we wanted to have them do it to learn it,”
adding a month to the timeline.

We head from Yatta to the remote
refugee camp where the windmill will go. Here Palestinians live in caves
and tents, some having only recently won back their land in Israeli
courts. As I look around at the contrast between the living conditions
and the intense, ancient biblical landscape, Jordan in the distance,
Elad comments, “It really looks like history vomited them back onto the
mountain.” Cold gusts billow from the valley, and I understand how
important wind power could become.

Tiny camp children run to Ezra,
grabbing his hand. He lifts them like a proud grandfather, talking
gently, moving them slowly around, as if comforting them that one day
all that they see will be theirs. But it’s a shaky proposition. Elad
points out young Europeans living in the camp protecting them from
attacks from Jewish settlements.

Ezra prefers to focus on the
positive, saying that when he and Elad visit, “It is nice that they see
this side of Israel, they are not afraid. For most children, all they
know of Israel are settlers and soldiers. I am good PR for Israel.”

Not
everyone agrees. What I witness is very different from Citizen Nawi,
where Ezra is followed by Israeli settlers calling him “pervert” and
“faggot,” claiming he molests little boys and girls, and Israeli
soldiers accuse him of trying to touch them sexually. Ezra tells me
Israeli soldiers spread rumors he had AIDS and that his project’s secret
name was “Project Homo,” a plot to turn Arab men gay.

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It’s easy to
believe Orthodox settlers are homophobic. But Israeli soldiers? It goes
against assumptions about a country with movies like Eytan Fox’s 2002
Yossi & Jagger, about gay Israeli soldiers. Israel is also working
to build its gay reputation to the outside world. According to Geoffrey
Weill, president of Geoffrey Weill Associates, a public relations firm
working with Israel, the country has produced viral web videos promoting
itself as a gay destination, and invited “journalists from gay media
and websites,” for press trips. Tel Aviv recently contended for Sexiest
Place on Earth and Best Breakout Destination in Logo’s TripOut Gay
Travel Awards.

In spite of this, Sydney Levy, director of campaigns
and programs for the San Francisco–based Jewish Voice For Peace, which
is providing assistance to Ezra, says Nawi “faces additional
discrimination because he is gay and because he is an Iraqi,” in a
country he says prefers to forget many Jews have Arabic backgrounds. He
adds that the Israeli government “spends a lot of money on this idea” of
a gay-friendly Israel, even promoting the gay fantasy of the “sexy
Israeli soldier,” used on Israeli tourism posters during San Francisco’s
2009 Pride. Levy adds, “At the same time, you have the current minister
of Interior [Eli Yishai] who calls gay people sick” and tried to block
Tel Aviv’s 2009 Pride.

“More complex,” according to Levy, is how gay
issues deflect attention from the Palestinian conflict, a concept called
“pinkwashing” by various activists. Levy says that “part of the bargain
Israel suggests is that we are like you, we are homo-friendly, and they
are homophobic, so you should ignore all the human rights violations we
have.” He adds, “Even if you were to assume that every Palestinian was
homophobic and every Israeli was homo-friendly, you don’t bargain human
rights. That should not impinge on the fight Palestinians have for equal
rights.”

While Israel has gay politicians, and parades and bars in
Tel Aviv, how homophobic Palestinians are in contrast depends on whom
you talk to. “All of my friends are gay-friendly. Even if they are not
gay-friendly, they are gay-tolerant, like the Palestinians,” Ezra tells
me. And yet concerning Fuad and other gay Palestinians, Ezra’s words are
very different in Citizen Nawi, in which he says “it’s not a nice situation”
for them.

According to Hossein Alizadeh, the Middle East and North
Africa program coordinator for the International Gay and Lesbian Human
Rights Commission, Palestinian treatment of gays varies by city, clan,
and other factors. The worst case he worked on was in Gaza, where a gay
man had received death threats from his father, who “intentionally
kicked him out of the house so Israelis could kill him,” during an
Israeli army shooting raid. In addition, he has heard of honor killings
and cases of being burned while wrapped in tires “but not seen
documentation.” In general, Alizadeh explained, the West Bank is typical
of Arab communities in that “if you have the support of the family and
you are discreet,” things can be OK, adding, “I don’t call it exactly
quality life.”

Through my journalistic work in the region, I know of
cases of gay Palestinians seeking asylum in Israel, others forced to
spy for Mossad, the Israeli secret service, complicating the discussion
of homosexuality in the West Bank and conflating it with broader
political issues. These were major topics of discussion during the 2006
Jerusalem World Pride, though in spite of trying to interview such men, I
was never able to. Further confusing the Palestinian picture is that
the Palestinian Liberation Organization had an openly gay spokesman, the
American-Palestinian Michael Tarazi; and that there are reports that
Yasser Arafat, the longtime leader of the PLO who died in 2004 of what
was termed a mysterious blood illness, might have been bisexual, based
on communist-era spy recordings in Romania.

Still another view comes
from Canadian lesbian filmmaker Elle Flanders, who lived in Ramallah
and directed the 2005 documentary Zero Degrees of Separation, about gay
Palestinian-Israeli couples, and included Ezra and Fuad (who was called
“Selim” in the film). Flanders says gay life is “as repressive in
Palestinian societies as it is 100 kilometers [60 miles] outside of the
biggest queer American center.”

Says Rauda Morcos, a consultant on LGBTI
issues in the Middle East North Africa region for the Dutch rights group
Hivos and former director of Aswat, a group working on lesbian issues
for Palestinians living on both sides of the wall: “I know of no
law against gays in the West Bank.” Her view is that “saying it is a
difficult place for gay people won’t help.” Her preference in Palestine
is to “change the reality” through activism.

Morcos says that while
Israel is portrayed as liberal for gays, “It is only Tel Aviv, and maybe
one quarter of one part of Tel Aviv,” mentioning the August 2009 Tel
Aviv gay youth center shootings and the 2005 Jerusalem gay pride stabbings.
She says Jewish Israeli gay groups have little interest in Palestine,
commenting that they “might be supporting the occupation. I mean most of
them served in the Army.”

Ezra, who says he was part of one of
Jerusalem’s first gay rights groups, Apple, in the 1970s, also believes
most Israeli gays care little about Palestinian issues or other social
causes. He tells me, “They refuse to be involved in social problems, the
Palestinians, the people who don’t have housing, people in the bottom
of the country.”

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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.