For the rest of his life, whenever someone asks Adam Kawalek, “What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?,” he’ll have to tell the story of how, in August of 2014, he got married, changed his name, and traveled halfway across the world just so he could sneak into Gaza in the middle of a war. And, if that’s not ballsy enough, after a slight pause for dramatic effect, he’ll mention he did all that despite the fact that he’s a Zionist Jew and gay.
When Kawalek, a doctor specializing in the overall care of hospitalized patients at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, first tried to sign up for a volunteer program in Gaza in July, the folks at the International Medical Corps, the humanitarian relief group running it, suggested a really good psychiatrist instead.
“They thought I was nuts,” he said from his United Nations-protected room in Gaza City when we first talked. “But I really needed to come here. There was no way I was going to take no for an answer.”
The reason IMC was less than thrilled about sending Kawalek into Gaza was his middle name, Zvi. Hebrew for “deer,” it couldn’t be more Jewish if it were served on a toasted bagel with a side of lox. There was no way he was getting into Gaza with a name like that in his passport. He’d have a better chance getting hit by lightning twice on a sunny day.
“They told me that if I could get a new passport without my middle name in it, they would be willing to consider it.”
With the help of some friends at Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office, he was able to get the process expedited. Still, there were no guarantees. So, just to be safe, Kawalek drove his boyfriend to City Hall and got hitched. “It was the only way I could change my name without having to go through the process. Also, I wanted to make sure he was protected in case anything happened to me there.”
Middle-name-free passport in hand, Kawalek boarded a flight to Israel the next day. From there, he crossed into Gaza. No one other than his new husband knew where he was, not even close friends and family. “I didn’t even tell my relatives in Israel that I was coming because I was afraid they’d accidentally post something on Facebook.”
The only person in Gaza who knew he was Jewish was his security chief, hired by IMC to protect the entire crew. “No one else knew I was Jewish, and even he didn’t know I was gay.”
A longtime Zionist, Kawalek grew up in Montreal in a semi-religious household. As a child, he studied at a yeshiva. Like many Jews around the world, he’s always maintained Israel’s right to defend itself. Once in Gaza, he says he started to see things differently. “I began to question Israel’s moral authority and whether or not anything Israel does should be accepted blindly.”
Although he still considers himself a Zionist, Kawalek believes Israel should be held accountable for the devastation in Gaza. “In Gaza City the damage was much more surgical,” he said. “There was very precise bombings from my subjective standpoint. I really felt like the IDF did a decent job at destroying structures that they felt they needed to destroy, whether or not there was justification behind it.”
The problem, said Kawalek, is in the rural areas, particularly those close to the border with Israel. “The devastation I saw was extreme. Israel wiped out entire villages, essentially widening the buffer zone between it and the entire Gaza Strip.”
On one of his days assessing the area, Kawalek was taken to a local kindergarten, where the IDF had reportedly blasted through a side wall rather than use the front door, a tactic employed to avoid booby traps. “They basically destroyed everything. To top it off, there was human waste everywhere.” That’s when Kawalek said he noticed a letter, written in English, tossed on the ground. “To the children of Gaza,” read the note. “Sorry for the damage. Hope we will share a better future together, IDF soldiers.” Kawalek was horrified. “All I could think of was how inhumane and perverse a military can be to do something like that to a kindergarten. Imagine having your property invaded and then being taunted with statements like that.”
After looking into the matter, an IDF spokesperson told The Daily Beast, while it was unable to verify Kawalek’s story, it “puts an unparalleled emphasis on preparing soldiers for all possible situations they may face while in combat-operational preparedness and interaction with civilians. Soldiers are briefed on the importance of respecting civilians and civilian property and are prohibited from any behavior to the contrary. Any circumstances to the contrary are looked into and if misconduct is recognized, the responsible soldiers are dealt with by the appropriate authorities.”
During his 17 days in Gaza, Kawalek said he witnessed no anger toward Hamas, even though its rockets triggered the assault. “Everyone seemed to support them. I don’t know if it was forced or whether it was truly felt, but the majority of Gazans I met felt that Hamas was their protector and would defend the right of Palestinians until the end.”
He admits there was one moment when he felt truly scared for his life. On August 18, IDF planes bombed a building belonging to Hamas military chief Mohammed Deif, which happened to be a few blocks away from where he was. Kawalek could feel the earth move. “It’s not quite a shaking sensation as much as a compressive force. It felt like an earthquake for like 25 seconds. I remember thinking, ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’”
As for his reading of Gazans in general, Kawalek said after he got back to Los Angeles that he believes most of them just want the conflict to end. “I’d say 95 percent of the people there just want the war to be over. The majority of Gazans are not radical.”
Asked 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, Kawalek said no. “We can’t hold people to standards that we’ve only developed and evolved over the last 50 years. I don’t think Americans can really take a moral stance on this issue. That seems a bit disingenuous to me.”
That said, he’s relieved to be back on U.S. soil, where he no longer has to hide his religion or sexuality from anyone. “We take too many things for granted. I’m happy to be back home.”