In Conversation with Moti Kahana: Discussing the Israeli Philanthropist’s Background and His Significant Humanitarian Work During the Syrian Civil War

© Photo by IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation via Flickr

Mordechai (Moti) Kahana is an Israeli native, who moved to the United States in 1991 to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration from the University of Arizona. Until 2009 he was a businessman in the automotive field when he decided to sell his own company and pursue humanitarian work on a global scale ranging from the United States, Syria and today, Ukraine.

Mr Kahana’s humanitarian career originated from his own Romanian ancestry. Visiting the Holocaust Remembrance Center Yad Vashem in Jerusalem ultimately functioned as a catalyst for Mr Kahana to change careers from active businessman to philanthropist. He felt particularly compelled to aid Syrians who were killed by their own government during the violent civil uprising phase of the Syrian Civil War as he saw the parallels between their situation and the history of his ancestors. Kahana explains:

“When the Syrian government started shooting their own people, I knew I had to do something given what happened to my family in Romania. In the city of Iași, the Romanian government persecuted and killed the Jews during World War II.”

Kahana continues, clarifying that during this period, it was not the Nazis persecuting the Jews, but rather the Romanian government and local neighbours:

“The Romanian government was killing their own Jews. In Syria, the government began shooting their own people. History was repeating itself. As Jews, we said, ‘never again’ regarding the Holocaust and other genocides.  I later translated ‘never again’ not only to us—the Jewish people but also extended it to other people as well. This made me become very active in Syria, in an effort to help those people in their fight for democracy.”

Despite Mr Kahana’s desire to help, Israeli-Syrian conflictual relations remain strained during this period owing to a large number of incidents taking place on the Purple Line[1] during the initial phase of the civil war. However, the Israeli government insisted on maintaining an official position of strict neutrality and sought to help the Syrians protect themselves from growing Iranian influence while providing consistent humanitarian aid through Operation Good Neighbour[2]. Reaching out to an acquaintance who was involved in the Syrian peace talk with the Israelis, Kahana was redirected to the U.S. Office of Foreign Affairs given his American citizenship. Kahana states,

“On the U.S. side of it, their suggestion involved distributing SIM cards since the government was blocking the Internet and preventing citizens from getting their voices to the rest of the world in an effort to describe their current reality.”

Kahana was involved in equipping Syrians with Internet access to upload pictures, stories, and videos showing the civil terror they faced daily. Kanaha was convinced,

“I figured if this content got back to the media and people actually saw it, the Syrian government would eventually stop. Clearly, I was very naive and that outcome did not happen.”

Nevertheless, providing internet connection and SIM cards to allow Syrians to “voice themselves to the outside world” was the beginning of [his] journey in Syria. The period of late 2010 and early 2011 — the latter of which coincides with Kahana’s debut efforts in Syria — also represents the beginning of the revolutionary Arab Spring across Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, and others. Kahana refutes the notion that since these are Middle Eastern countries, they will never achieve true democratic freedom like the United States. He argues,

“Some people call me naive [regarding achieving democracy in the Middle East] and in reply I always say, ‘think of America.’ When [Americans] kicked the British out, one hundred years later we killed each other in the Civil War, and only one hundred years after that Civil War we finally give women certain rights, freed the slaves, and yet we still are not as democratic as we would like to be today.”

Kahana is primarily referring to the United States’ Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that previously provided cisgender women, transgender men, non-binary individuals, and other persons with a capacity for pregnancy access to legal abortions in every state. He continues,

“Democracy is a very, very long process. And, furthermore, we in the U.S. killed each other in the middle of it. The Arab Spring represents the start of this same democratic process we had in America. It will certainly not take 250 years given technology and our ability to communicate with one another, but it does not happen overnight.”

Upon returning to Syria to continue his efforts, Kahana faced many difficulties as he found that “everybody was afraid of everybody” during this time. He elaborates:

“With me being an Israeli, it was almost impossible to even talk to [any Syrians]. It took a long time for the Syrians to trust me as they generally distrust and dislike Israelis and were unsure about my true intentions. It was a lengthy process that took a few years and involved slowly building bridges between myself and the Syrian opposition for them to finally realize that all I wanted to do was to help them.”

From 2012 to 2015, Kahana began aiding refugees by taking humanitarian supplies into the country while simultaneously trying to connect NGOs with both the Syrian opposition and the people of Syria in need of consistent supplies. He also travelled to refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey, and Greece searching for even more ways to locate necessary supplies. Around the same period of time in 2013, Kahana became primarily focused on humanitarian diplomacy as he attempted to connect the Syrian opposition to the Israeli government, as well as the U.S. government in Washington. Eventually the Syrian opposition group wanted to take U.S. Senator John McCain to Syria, a trip which was entirely organised and funded by Kahana.

© Photo by Wikimentor1 via Wikimedia Commons

Starting in 2016, Kahana began taking injured refugees out of the country to provide them with urgent medical care in Israel. The Israeli government eventually consented to treating Syrian women and children in hospitals given their recognition of Kahana’s longstanding efforts to aid their war-torn people. Thus, Kahana would transport injured women and children out of Syria to hospitals in Israel, then safely return them to Syria once they received the necessary medical attention required.

However, this noble humanitarian work comes at a price. When asked about fearing for his safety when visiting war-torn Syria and travelling to other potentially dangerous locations in search of more humanitarian aid, Kahana describes the perils he has faced:

“According to the Israeli government, there have been two kidnapping attempts and a five-million-dollar bounty on my head. I only remember one kidnapping attempt, not two, and I still survived. But yes, it can take its toll. You are working in a war zone and fighting against a government that wants to kill the people you are trying to help. The government was not happy I was doing what I was doing, but of course I was doing it. I am still alive and I am okay.”

Today, Kahana continues to help refugees in need around the world. He has started a company (for profit) providing services to non-profit organisations such as NGOs that want to help a country or cause but would need Kahana’s logistic expertise and execution to “get the job done.” This ultimately costs the NGOs far less money than if they were to take the project upon themselves with no resources, experience, or professional help. Kahana has also been helping Ukrainian refugees since the beginning of the Ukraine war by setting up tents with soup kitchens along the Ukrainian/Romanian border for both Jewish and non-Jewish Ukrainians seeking to escape the conflict. It is clear that humanitarianism is engrained in Kahana’s being. But given all the dangers and horrors he has seen, what keeps him going?

“Getting hugs from little children. Or from the parents of children whose lives I just saved. Seeing Syrian women and children enter an enemy state (Israel) for medical attention and talk and get along with Israelis. The human in humans keeps me going. There is no God, I think God is a misspelled word. I don’t know about God, but I know about GOOD. I see good everywhere, every day. I believe in Heaven. I am in Heaven because the world we are living in is Heaven. When I want to be in Heaven, all I have to do is walk outside.”

Avery Caroline Harle is a French-American writer, editor, and translator. With a Departmental Honours and Magna Cum Laude BA in Global Communications and Journalism from the American University of Paris, she is passionate about social justice and international human rights law. Fluent in French, English, and Italian, she is currently serving as a blog writer at the Platform for Peace and Humanity. Using both her language skills and passion for humanitarianism, Avery hopes to continue to forge her career in investigative journalism on a global scale.

[1] The Purple Line refers to the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria after the 1967 Six-Day War and serves as the de facto border between the two countries.

[2] Operation Good Neighbour was a directive of the Northern Command’s Division 210 of Israel Defence Forces (IDF) that was responsible for civilian aid to Syrian citizens who were affected by the Syrian Civil War.

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