Before Los Angeles physician Adam Kawalek left for his Gaza “vacation” this summer, he realized he’d best take care of a few things.
So he applied for emergency issuance of a secondary US passport where his obviously Hebrew middle name, Zvi, would not appear.
And he quickly married his boyfriend.
“We went to the Beverly Hills courthouse and had a shotgun wedding,” Kawalek tells The Times of Israel.
“That way, I could automatically make Kawalek my middle name and take my husband’s last name, Navarro, as my last name. It would also protect my husband legally if anything were to happen to me,” he explains.
In the best of times the Gaza Strip isn’t a comfortable place to be Jewish — or gay. But with a military conflict raging between Hamas and Israel, the Zionist doctor wanted to assist Gazans impacted by the fighting, and to gain first-hand experience and understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
A hospitalist with the Inpatient Specialty Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Kawalek believed the first-hand experience was worth taking his chances, so he volunteered to provide humanitarian assistance with the International Medical Corps.
“While I was there I was not outwardly Jewish or gay. I did not inform IMC of my religious identity or sexual orientation, and I only told people I had been in Gaza after I had safely returned home,” Kawalek says.
“I was protecting my identities out of self-preservation.”
IMC, citing a policy of not discussing personnel issues, refused to comment.
Not his first humanitarian mission
Kawalek, 37, is not new to foreign humanitarian missions and has traveled to a number of developing countries under the auspices of various relief and emergency response organizations. In 2010, he spent a month in Haiti following the island nation’s devastating earthquake. In 2011 he provided primary medical care in rural areas of India for a month. He went to Kenya for two weeks in 2012 to provide primary care, and to Liberia for three weeks in 2013 to work in emergency rooms.
“I’d rather take this kind of vacation than one where you just sit on the beach,” Kawalek says.
He cites a number of reasons why he devotes so much time to these humanitarian missions. Primarily, he gains professional satisfaction from the more intimate relationships he can develop with patients and their families.
“There are fewer rules and red tape in these countries than in the US. You get to spend more time with patients and impact their lives in a palpable way,” he says.
Kawalek also likes to travel and see the world.
“It keeps me sober, humble and thankful for what I have when I see the much more significant struggles people have in developing countries,” he says.
“And I see it as a mitzvah to do this kind of work when I have had a privileged upbringing,” he says.
Ignoring the haters and engaging in dialogue
The doctor is aware of attacks against him by bloggers and social media commentators who characterize him as a naive leftist, a self-hating Jew and an attention hound for traveling to Gaza to help Palestinians during Operation Protective Edge.
A Montreal high school classmate, Laurent Wiesel, wrote a Times of Israel blog post on September 24 in response to a Daily Beast article on Kawalek: “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,” wrote Wiesel.
Kawalek says these critics don’t bother him, and that he welcomes dialogue on the complicated conflict.
He is confident in his worldview and character, which were shaped to a large extent by being a double minority, and also by his upbringing in the Montreal Jewish community. His culturally Jewish family sent him to Jewish day schools from kindergarten through the end of high school, and he grew up with a close relationship with his more traditional, Holocaust-survivor grandparents.
“We’ve discovered that my husband, who is not Jewish and whose family is from Mexico, is a descendant of crypto-Jews on his mother’s side. Their last name was Medina,” Kawalek says.
“This has helped my bubbe reconcile with the fact that I have married a non-Jew. She calls my husband Moishele, because she can’t pronounce his real name, Damien.”
Last November, Kawalek took “Moishele” with him on a trip to Israel to pick up Kawalek’s grandmother, who had been visiting family in Haifa. It was the first time for Navarro in the country, which Kawalek has visited seven times and which he calls his “absolute homeland.” It’s also where he wants to eventually be buried.
Kawalek calls the criticism aimed at him is for the most part “a straw man argument.” He takes issue with what he considers the over-opinionated comments on the Gaza conflict posted by Jews, and the squelching of dissent and questioning about Israeli policy toward the Palestinians within the North American Jewish community.
“It was the regurgitation of others’ opinions, this projection and magnification of deep-seated resentments, this lack of struggling with understanding what is really going on, that prompted me to go to Gaza to see and experience things for myself,” Kawalek says.
On the ground in Gaza and East Jerusalem
The first thing that happened upon Kawalek’s arrival in Gaza was that people there experienced him as appearing very much like American military. His shaved head, tall stature, buff physique and chiseled features were attracting too much unwanted (and negative) attention.
As a result, it was decided that Kawalek would not directly treat patients, but rather do administrative work — mainly assessments to determine immediate medical and psycho-social service needs, as well as ones for strengthening the capacity of local healthcare providers and systems.
Kawalek did this work in Gaza, as well as in East Jerusalem during the two and a half weeks he volunteered with IMC in late August and early September.
Gaza was the first conflict zone the doctor had ever visited, and the first place where his movement was restricted. He could not travel anywhere without security.
“We could not be outside hanging out, and we were only allowed to be outside during daylight hours,” he says.
Kawalek reports that Israeli bombs were falling around the apartment building where he was staying, and that he followed safety precautions to sleep well away from windows.
“There was the constant drum of drones overhead, and I saw Hamas rockets fired from the vicinity of our building,” he says.
He spoke to as many locals as possible, like the women who ran the community organizations he visited, shop keepers, and kids in the street after the ceasefire, which took effect on August 26.
‘There was no physical evidence or appearance of Hamas. Literally zero presence of Hamas fighters in uniform’
However, he did not speak to anyone who identified himself as Hamas. In fact, Hamas gunmen were conspicuously absent.
“There was no physical evidence or appearance of Hamas. Literally zero presence of Hamas fighters in uniform,” Kawalek recalls. “I saw no weapons, no guns, no soldiers.”
After the ceasefire, he did see Hamas gunmen driving around Gaza City. In one instance, he was in the front seat of a car stopped directly behind a pickup truck filled with gunmen and missiles.
“We just looked at one another through the windshield. It was a surreal 30 seconds,” Kawalek says.
The doctor says he was careful not to use his Hebrew when passing in and out of Israel to volunteer in Gaza and East Jerusalem. But when he was flying out of Tel Aviv from Ben Gurion Airport, he lapsed in to Hebrew while speaking with the border patrol officer. As a result, he says he was interrogated and personally escorted onto his flight back to LA.
No substitute for first-hand experience
Back at work at Cedars-Sinai, Kawalek says he has no regrets about volunteering in Gaza and that he was confident he would come out of the situation all right as long as he followed protective measures.
There was a humanitarian need that required answering, and he was curious to see the situation on the ground with his own eyes.
‘I do believe that eventually peace will prevail, and I wanted to involve myself directly through medicine and through grassroots efforts’
“I do believe that eventually peace will prevail, and I wanted to involve myself directly through medicine and through grassroots efforts. I believe that dialogue and relationships are what leads to change,” he says.
Not one for being politically vocal, Kawalek advocates for change in a personal, rather than public way.
“With the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as with medicine, first-hand experience counts for something,” he says.