By BERNIE BELLAN The firing of St. Boniface Hospital’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Hussam Azzam, only two months after he was hired led me to an extremely disturbing and surprising discovery about that doctor’s history of posting invective laden posts against Israel on social media.
As I note in my story elsewhere on this website about how I came to discover Dr. Azzam’s history of tweeting offensive posts, my first impression of what had happened was based on Dr. Azzam’s own tweet that he was “Removed as St. Boniface Hospital Chief Medical Officer due to criticizing Israeli government actions vis-a-vis Palestine & its people”.
That seemed innocuous enough, I thought. Heck, I’ve been very critical myself of Israeli government policies toward Palestinians. This paper has lost subscribers as a result – not many, but a few, so at first glance I felt some sympathy toward Dr. Azzam.
I even sent him a conciliatory message, asking whether there was anything he could tell me about the circumstances that had led to his firing. In return, as I note in my story, Dr. Azzam responded fairly quickly with what I would regard as a very polite explanation that he could not comment on what happened.
It was only as I investigated further that I realized there was quite a bit more to this story than simply a freedom of speech issue. I’m not experienced enough with Twitter to be able to probe into someone’s Twitter account to try and find tweets that may have been expunged, but I was able to discover enough pictures on Dr. Azzam’s Twitter account which hadn’t been removed yet that I was able to get a much clearer picture of what Dr. Azzam had been up to.
I leave it to the reader to judge whether the pictures (all five of which can be seen on our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/TheJewishPost ) that Dr. Azzam had posted on his Twitter account were offensive to the degree that he had crossed some sort of line that might have merited his dismissal from St. B. But, when I was subsequently handed an entire series of verbal tweets that had been removed from Dr. Azzam’s Twitter account some time before I broke the story on January 22, my mind was made up: Dr. Azzam had engaged in a particularly odious form of hate speech.
Lines like “Israel is run by maniacal mass-murdering Zio-Nazis” and “Zionists are the terrorists of the Middle East” are deeply offensive, not just to many Jews, but to many non-Jews as well. And coming from one of the senior administrators of Manitoba’s second largest hospital, well, they’re absolutely shocking.
But, when Free Press reporter Carol Sanders wrote her own story about Dr. Azzam’s firing – and chose to frame it as a sympathetic portrayal of one person’s being targeted simply for expressing his opinion, I was even more upset. I had anticipated both the Free Press and the CBC catching on to this story once I broke it on our own Facebook page and website and I had also anticipated that neither media outlet would do very much digging into what exactly Dr. Azzam had done to merit his dismissal, but the Free Press story was plainly ridiculous.
To whom did Carol Sanders turn for a comment about Dr. Azzam’s firing? None other than Harold Shuster, of Independent Jewish Voices – someone, by the way, whom I’ve come to know. With all due respect to Harold, asking him to comment on Dr. Azzam’s being fired without referring to anything that Dr. Azzam may have actually said was akin to asking Kellyanne Conway whether Donald Trump has been treated fairly by the “mainstream media”. When you know the answer you want to get, you go to a source who’s going to give you that answer.
So – I posted my own comment to Carol Sanders’ story, in which I invited anyone reading that comment to go either to our Facebook page or website to take a look at what it was that Dr. Azzam had actually posted on his Twitter account.
In return, others replied to my comment, including one from someone who took me to task for being a hypocrite. Evidently that person is a reader of our paper, because he or she referred to the Jan. 18 issue, when I reported on the incident of a rock with an anti-Semitic inscription being left on the doorstep of a Winnipeg couple.
Here is what that person wrote, in part: “Bernie - Its awfully funny how just a few short weeks ago following the very clearly anti-Semitic incident in the Wolseley neighborhood on New Years Eve your ‘paper’ downplayed the incident and was critical of Bnai Brith for drawing this to greater public attention. Yet in this case you go after someone for being critical of the GOVERNMENT of ISRAEL.”
That person, however, did not read carefully enough what I had written in my Short Takes column in the January 18 issue. Here is what I said about why I was downplaying the incident that B’nai Brith had played up: “As B’nai Brith’s most recent audit of anti-Semitic incidents notes however, it is on the Internet that anti-Semitism rears its ugly head most frighteningly. There are so many anti-Semitic websites that one cannot be at all complacent about the subject. But, until someone draws your attention to a specific anti-Semitic website or some anti-Semitic post on a social media site such as Facebook, do you think much about anti-Semitism on the Internet?” (emphasis added here)
And this is the point why I found what Dr. Azzam had been posting so repugnant and why he deserved to be fired. The type of invective that is being hurled on the Internet toward anyone who is sympathetic toward Israel – Jewish or non-Jewish, is absolutely detestable. Not only that, it can also lead to violence far more easily than someone placing a rock on a doorstep. Postings from someone as respected as the Chief Medical Officer of a major hospital can be expected to carry a lot more weight than most other individuals. To argue that someone’s comments on social media are the expressions of a private individual and should not affect that person’s public persona is totally disingenuous.
Yes, we can criticize Israeli government policies toward the Palestinians, as I myself have done repeatedly, but when it comes to describing Zionists as Nazis, Israelis as terrorists committing genocide, and posting cartoons that show Netanyahu with a missile being thrust into a defenseless child, I draw a clear line. Those comments are meant to incite hatred toward Israelis and anyone sympathetic to Israelis.
How on earth could any Jewish staff member at St. B or patient, for that matter, be expected to interact with Dr. Azzam except in the most uncomfortable manner, once knowledge of what he had been posting became public?
The larger question though is: When did the person or persons who were responsible for hiring Dr. Azzam become aware of what he had been posting on the Internet? As I also note in my story, Dr. Azzam had been fired in May 2016 by the Northern Regional Health Authority. The reason or reasons for his dismissal have not been made public, although we have privately been given a pretty clear indication for his firing. Would the fact that he was fired from his last job not have been reason enough for someone to have done a thorough due diligence on this particular doctor before his having been hired to such a senior position at St. B?
There are all sorts of ramifications to this story, including whether this will cast any sort of a shadow over St. B. But, the idea that someone’s utterances on the Internet should have nothing at all to do with that person’s ability or qualification to perform a particular job is totally naive. We can have a reasoned discussion on many issues on the Internet, including Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and yes, it can get testy at times, but when it boils over into what is clearly hate speech, we cannot remain indifferent. That is why I focused on this one doctor so hard. Perhaps, if word of this doctor’s firing spreads, it will serve as a lesson to others who might have a high public profile to temper their remarks – no matter what the area of discussion, before posting them to as public a forum as Twitter or Facebook.