It was repulsive viewing: the sight of a Jewish man gleefully suggesting that he had played a part in another man’s death.
Ezra Nawi recounted a story of a Palestinian man who tried to cut land deals with settlers and is now dead. Nawi, a towering figure on Israel’s activist left, said: “I have a hand in this,” and appeared to try to put the wheels in motion for another Palestinian man to head toward this same fate.
Nawi’s words and actions, captured on hidden cameras, are the scandal of the month here in Israel. The activist left should have proved its moral compass by condemning what it saw, by saying that it was beyond the pale, by realizing that once in a while it’s OK to react to something like the rest of the country. But it failed.
Nawi was shown on Israel’s Channel 2 taking a phone call from the Palestinian who wanted to sell land, and then remarking: “Now, this isn’t the first time that they turn to me — he’s perhaps the fourth.”
What should a Jewish left-wing activist, a leader in the Ta’ayush organization who has also done work for several other NGOs including Rabbis for Human Rights, do when approached to buy land for settlements? Probably say no thanks, or tell the seller that they have the wrong address. Not Nawi. He went to significant lengths to get proof that the Palestinian wanted to sell land, and then he contacted Palestinian authorities, which can potentially punish him with the death penalty. He claimed that he’s done the same in the past, saying: “I hand over their pictures and telephone numbers straight to the Palestinian security force.”
Nawi set up a meeting, recorded it on a hidden camera, played the role of the settlers’ fixer, and called a contact in the Palestinian security forces. Then he went to another Palestinian contact who suggested they entrap the Palestinian seller in a subsequent meeting — this time bringing Palestinian officials into the loop.
When the man who filmed Nawi asked him what the Palestinian security services do to land sellers, Nawi bluntly replied: “Catch them and kill them,” also suggesting that they are beaten.
Now, before I continue I want to say that the current campaign by the Israeli government against the Israeli activist left leaves me uncomfortable, and in this column last month I criticized rightist politicians for their obsessive attempts to delegitimize Breaking the Silence, which is perhaps the most controversial of all the groups of the activist left.
The human rights-oriented NGOs, activists and thinkers of the Israeli left should have been up in arms at Nawi’s actions. Becoming an informer to a regime, gathering evidence of a business proposal that could result in the death penalty and propelling the evidence into the relevant hands, hardly squares with a human rights agenda. But what we saw was a deeply disappointing reaction.
I expected an esteemed group like Rabbis for Human Rights to speak with a single voice in condemnation, but instead saw the disturbing phenomenon of two messages emerging. The group’s head, Arik Ascherman, stuck up for Nawi on his Facebook page, which is read by thousands who admire RHRs work (he can’t seriously claim that it’s separate from his RHR life). He admitted that Nawi’s words were “disgusting” and unjustifiable, but portrayed the controversy as much ado about nothing because he’s convinced that Nawi was just bragging about sending Palestinians to the grave, and that none were really harmed.
Ascherman wrote that Nawi’s “greatest crime” is acting to help the defenseless who face abuse by the state, a reference to Palestinian and Israeli authorities. Seemingly bemoaning the “current climate” of anger toward Nawi, Ascherman remarked that “there are even activists of human rights groups and of the left … who are disassociating from him.”
But the average American supporter of RHR — many are Jews from the community’s mainstream who see donations as supporting a good Israeli cause and I suspect may be deeply disturbed by Nawi’s conduct — was shielded from what appeared to be an apologist position. Ascherman only posted it in Hebrew. English speakers who searched his Facebook and RHR’s website for a response to the affair found only a statement saying that Nawi’s work for the organization has been frozen and that an investigation is underway. In the statement, RHR was practicing the kind of disassociation from Nawi that, if you read Facebook and understand Hebrew, seems to leave its leader dismayed.
The claims that Ascherman’s post are based on were discussed far and wide among the activist left. They were most eloquently argued on the +972 website, where there was much clutching at straws to suggest that this wasn’t the big story it seemed to be.
Haggai Matar, co-editor of +972’s Hebrew version, wrote that Nawi was showing off when he discussed the punishment that has been wrought on land sellers — that he hadn’t really brought about anyone’s downfall and the man that he tried to shop in the hidden camera footage didn’t actually come to any harm. Channel 2 wasn’t able to prove that anyone had been harmed as a result of his conduct, Matar wrote.
This misses the point. When a Gazan fires a rocket toward Israel, it’s still abhorrent even if it hits an open area, and when a right-wing Jewish extremist strikes a match at a Palestinian home, it’s still abhorrent even if the rain puts out the fire or if the house turns out to be empty.
Matar also seems to exonerate Nawi’s role as informer by suggesting that he didn’t risk putting anyone in danger. The death penalty for selling land still exists, he admitted, but it isn’t currently enforced. Perhaps he’s right that the Palestinian president hasn’t actually signed off hanging for land sales since he took office in 2005. Still, the sentence has been handed down in court even if it hasn’t been carried out, so one wonders if condemning a man to live with a death sentence looming over him is viewed as OK. Don’t the alternative sentences bother Matar and others echoing his argument? A little over a year ago the Palestinian Authority suggested that, if not killing land sellers, it will be condemning them to hard labor for life. And even if land sellers aren’t being savagely punished at this moment, who knows where things are headed? At the end of 2014, Palestinian leaders upped the ante on this issue and Osama al-Qawasmi, a spokesman for Abbas’ Fatah party, was quoted by official Palestinian media saying that land sellers are “destined to die a humiliating death.”
Other writers on the left went so far as to accuse the Israeli government of being two-faced for probing the legal ramifications of Nawi possibly putting Palestinian lives in danger, because it doesn’t normally take much interest in the lives of Palestinians. A spectacularly twisted argument.
And B’Tselem, “the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories,” has had finer moments.
The Palestinian whom Nawi turned to in order to get his evidence to the Palestinian security forces was Nasser Nawaj’ah, a field researcher for B’Tselem in the South Hebron Hills. Reporting the Palestinian was “the only legitimate course of action for Palestinians,” B’Tselem claimed.
It’s difficult to fathom how B’Tselem has the confidence to stand so far outside of the consensus in Israel, but in a Palestinian context feels the need to fall in line with the establishment, even on a subject where this establishment threatens actions that are so at odds with human rights.
Many on the Israeli right are desperate to use the Nawi episode to claim that the whole activist left is rotten. It isn’t. But at times like these, it desperately needs to learn to take its head out of the sand.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.