A Montreal Jew in Gaza and What He Did Not See

On September 22, 2014, the online publication The Daily Beast ran a feature article by an Israeli-American journalist named Itay Hod, entitled “A Gay Jewish Zionist American Doctor in Gaza and What He Saw.” The bearer of these diverse labels is Adam Zvi Kawalek, a former classmate of mine from Herzliah High School in Montreal (Class of 1994), who by any measure has led an incredibly full and productive adult life.

Adam has worked as a medical doctor in New York and Los Angeles and repeatedly serves as part-time humanitarian aid worker in far-flung places during times of acute need: post-earthquake Haiti in 2010, the underserved rural communities of India, Kenya and Liberia, and most recently Gaza in August 2014, during the apogee of fighting there between Israel and Hamas.

Viewed through the prism of Facebook, Adam has lived these unique experiences as a proud Jew and member of the LGBT community. Positively riveting at first, the human-interest element of Mr. Hod’s article recounts how Adam married his boyfriend just before leaving California for Gaza, so he could change his name and secure a Zvi-free passport, and to make sure his now-spouse was “protected in case anything happens to me there.”

Regrettably, Adam’s courage and conviction cannot excuse him from criticism for lending his good name to an astonishingly shoddy and stilted piece of fringe-journalism, ostensibly on what Adam observed during the seventeen days he spent in Gaza. The Daily Beast article, written by a former member of the IDF turned activist reporter, smacks of a far-left, some would say anti-Israel, agenda, while contributing nothing to the public’s understanding of the recent conflagration in Israel’s ongoing conflict with Hamas.

Still, platitudes on who should be held accountable for the devastation in Gaza (Israel of course!) are commonplace enough and alone do not warrant the indignity this article deserves. No, the article is reprehensible because it is deceptive, and intentionally so, starting with its putative subject, the story of how Adam, the “Gay Jewish Zionist American Doctor” from Montreal, went to Gaza “to try to relieve the suffering of the sick and wounded there,” and how “the experience changed his view of Israel’s policies.”

I reached out to Adam through Facebook after the Daily Beast article was published, in hopes he would comment on the portrayal of his experiences and, in particular, the quotes attributed to him by the Daily Beast’s Mr. Hod. I received no response.

Let me then point to five observations Mr. Hod unscrupulously omitted from his article.

What Adam did not see.

First, Adam did not see himself. I do not doubt Adam entered Gaza intent on doing good, but boy does he fail to see the mendacity in his approach. The rushed nuptials, name-change, new passport — these are not the actions of someone who “really needed to come” to Gaza just because he wanted to care for victims of the conflict. Indeed, the core premise of the article, reflected in its headline and byline, is that Adam’s experience in Gaza crushed his previously held “Yeshiva” view of the Middle East conflict as “good” Israel vs. “bad” Palestine.

“Like many Jews around the world, he’s always maintained Israel’s right to defend itself,” the article states, purporting to reduce Adam’s pre-August 2014 views on the conflict to a vapid generalization giving lie to the “Jewish” and “Zionist” labels in the headline. (As this dissimulation cannot fairly be attributed to Adam, suffice to say that Israel’s right to self-defense against Hamas’ attacks is indisputable and a central tenet of international law – not exclusively the province of “many Jews around the world” – and is the view adopted by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the European Commission and countless others.)

According to Mr. Hod’s rendition, it was then and there, “once in Gaza,” that Adam “started to see things differently.” He “began to question Israel’s moral authority and whether or not anything Israel does should be accepted blindly.”

Disingenuous as a term only begins to describe these statements. They are dishonest. Anybody can see (check Twitter if not) that Adam had well-developed opinions on Israel’s policies and was well-versed in the pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel party line before boarding his flight to Tel Aviv. He did not start seeing anything differently once in Gaza, he saw what he set out to see and started talking to a sympathetic reporter about it.

Second, Adam did not see Hamas — the ISIS-like terrorist organization that has established a mini-caliphate in Gaza. Although Adam was in Gaza for seventeen days, and claims to have witnessed the bombing of a building belonging to Hamas military chief Mohammed Deif, the article wholly ignores (a) the thousands of rockets fired indiscriminately by Hamas from Gaza during that period, (b) the stores of rockets and other implements of destruction embedded in Gaza’s residential neighborhoods, schools, hospitals and mosques, (c) the masked militants mobilizing above ground and below through secret tunnels into Israel constructed for the purpose of abducting and killing innocent Israelis and unsuspecting IDF personnel, (d) the posses that reportedly rounded up and slaughtered scores of Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel or of affiliating with rival factions, (e) the use of women and children as human shields to protect terrorists and their weaponry from Israeli attacks, (f) the leaflets dropped by Israel warning of imminent attacks on terrorist infrastructure purposefully errected in populated areas, (g) the daily proclamations by radical officials extolling the virtues of murder and martyrdom, and (h) Hamas’ repeated violations of internationally-brokered cease fires that only deepened the damage wrought by the conflict.

Adam apparently observed none of these things. In fact, the first time Hamas is mentioned in the article, well into the narrative, readers are told that Adam “witnessed no anger toward Hamas, even though its rockets triggered the assault.” “Everyone seemed to support them,” Adam added, and “the majority of Gazans” he met “felt that Hamas was their protector and would defend the rights of Palestinians until the end.”

I don’t know who comprised “the majority of Gazans” Adam met when he was there. But if this was his takeaway, Adam should consider what that says about the company he kept when he was in Gaza. He should also ponder how this majority of Gazans he met felt about the three Israeli teenagers abducted and murdered by Hamas before hostilities flared, or about the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil on September 11, 2001 (when Adam was a medical student in New York), or about that old wives’ tale Jews tell about 6 million innocents murdered by the Nazis.

Third, Adam was willfully blind in sharing his “subjective standpoint” on the physical damage he saw in Gaza.  According to Adam, “in Gaza City the damage was much more surgical.” There, “the IDF did a decent job at destroying structures that they felt they needed to destroy.” On the outskirts of Gaza, however, Adam said “the devastation [he] saw was extreme.” “Israel wiped out entire villages,” and to Adam’s geo-strategically astute perspective this permitted Israel to widen ”the buffer zone between it and the entire Gaza Strip.”

Adam’s hasty conclusion that “Israel should be held accountable for the devastation in Gaza” ignores the clearly-defined objectives Israel eventually drew during Operation Protective Edge — namely, the dismantling of rocket launchers and terror tunnels dotting Gaza’s periphery that were being used and primed for terrorizing Israel’s civilian population.

There will be plenty of rigorous fact-finding, chiefly by Israel itself and then by the U.N. and others, concerning the efficacy and justification for every move Israel made during the recent incursion. And unless I’m misreading the Daily Beast headline, Adam’s qualifications do not include forensic investigations or international law. In any case, seventeen days in Gaza cannot possibly inform him of the conditions on the ground before he was there or the actual physical cause of the destruction he observed, let alone the justification for the means and results of destruction caused by Israeli munitions.

In short, Adam’s “subjective standpoint” on “the problem” in Gaza is unsupported and not the least bit newsworthy. The Daily Beast article is vague on where Adam went and why, including who led him to the blown-out kindergarten and other damage he bore witness to, and it does not explain how Adam’s assessment of devastation in Gaza related to the “humanitarian relief” he was there to provide. The article serves only to satisfy the public’s thirst for condemning Israel, with a splash of human-interest in the form of a ballsy American Doctor who risked his life to share his objectively worthless subjective standpoint on an incomplete picture of the conflict.

Fourth, Adam did not see his Gazan hosts through their eyes.  How might they have seen him — “A Gay Jewish Zionist American Doctor” and Montreal Jewish day school alum — had they learned who he really was?  Asked by Mr. Hod “whether he had an issue with the fact that he’d likely be killed by those he was trying to help had they found out he was gay,” Adam reportedly said no, he didn’t think “Americans can really take a moral stance on this issue.” “We can’t hold people to standards that we’ve only developed and evolved over the last 50 years,” he added. Right. But an American Doctor who grew up in a posh, cloistered suburban neighborhood can take a blunt moral stance on Israel’s actions?

Adam should pause and consider how his standards might “develop and evolve” if he or his loved ones were on the receiving end of Hamas’ rockets or if Hamas’ tunnels opened to the backyard of his childhood home in leafy Hampstead. One could interpret Adam’s staunch defense of Hamas’ abysmal human rights record as a double-standard, hypocrisy even. But it is more than that. For Adam to have experienced Gaza as he did, suppressing the individuality that makes him so interesting to follow on Facebook, and to come away believing that “the majority of Gazans are not radical,” suggests deep cognitive dissonance and calls into question why anyone should pay attention to “what he saw.”

As Adam well knows, he would have faced a fate worse than death if his identity were discovered. Once for being gay. Again for being a Jew in hiding. And if there were any part of him left another time for fitting Hamas’ definition of a Zionist. And does he actually believe the Gazans he met would protest such treatment or regret his loss? Sadly, consistent with his portrayal in the article, Adam would probably still insist that “95 percent of the people there” just want peace.

Fifth, a question — in all that time spent prejudging Israel’s actions did Adam finally see the sick and wounded he set out to help?  One would think Mr. Hod’s incisive tale of the Doctor and What He Saw would reference at least one patient encounter. It doesn’t. Not one.

Adam, I respect your commitment to public service, but if you want to make a real difference you might instead focus on caring for patients who want and need your help. I’d recommend giving Israel another try. There, you can treat Arabs and Jews alike and be respected by your patients and peers for being yourself, a Gay Jewish Zionist American Doctor I used to know from Montreal.


About the Author
Laurent S. Wiesel was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, and now resides with his wife Naomi and four children in Scarsdale, NY. He is a partner in an international law firm based in Manhattan. He attended and graduated Solomon Schechter Academy and Herzliah High School in Montreal, Colgate University in Hamilton, NY, and Columbia Law School in the City of New York. He has never been to Gaza, but he hopes to go there soon, after Hamas is exorcised from the area and a peaceful two-state solution becomes possible again.
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