Recent violence in Israel, and the subsequent coverage in mainstream media, on the web and especially in a British medical journal, triggered a 5-day educational physicians’ medical mission to Israel in late October and early November. This grassroots trip was planned in conjunction with the Israel Medical Association, with additional programming support from Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting In America (CAMERA), MediaCentral (a project of HonestReporting) , NGO-Monitor, Magen David Adom (MDA), The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), and the IDF Spokespersons Office through the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.
The goal was to enable physicians to see directly Israel’s medical actions, beyond the filter of biased news media and international NGO’s. Eleven physicians signed up, most from the USA, but also from Canada and as far away as Sydney, Australia. Particularly troubling to physicians has been the abuse of civilian populations on both sides by Hamas and other extremist groups. During the summer’s war, Israelis were direct Hamas targets and Gazans were human shields, mutually linked in danger by Palestinian Arab political leaders who had squandered vast amounts of humanitarian aid on weapons, attack tunnels, fortifications and personal aggrandizement.
Palestinian authority figures, including PA president Mahmoud Abbas, now in the ninth year of a four year term, have encouraged violence by exaggerating perceived threats to Islamic holy sites. Those sites, which have been a focus of Palestinian incitement, were holy to Jews centuries before the birth of Islam.
Physicians, who are used to dealing with pain, suffering and death, have been particularly bothered by the use of hospitals as military command posts and rocket-launching sites as occurred in Gaza. This conflict is the embodiment of “needless suffering”, not unlike, for example, cigarette induced lung cancer. Smokers need to quit their cigarettes. Arabs need to cease the hatred. Perhaps worst of all for physicians, dedicated to evidence based practice, has been the politicization of medical science, by NGOs, academic organizations, and even medical journals, not to convey knowledge or help the sick, but as a form of warfare.
The Lancet has a long history of anti-Israel bias, going back to at least 2007 when editor Richard Horton authored a long diatribe against Israel published in the New York Review of Books over the conflict with the Arabs. Horton subsequently started the “Lancet Palestinian Health Alliance”.
Unfortunately, The Lancet traded sound science for polemical violence.
This reached a new low with the “An open letter for the people in Gaza” that the ordinarily well regarded medical journal published online on July 22, shortly after Israel heightened its response to an unremitting series of rocket attacks. This article appeared less than two weeks after the start of operation Protective Edge.
In language not usually seen in medical publications, the authors offered a distorted condemnation of Israel, concluding, “Only 5% of our Israeli academic colleagues signed an appeal to their government to stop the military operation against Gaza. We are tempted to conclude that with the exception of this 5%, the rest of the Israeli academics are complicit in the massacre and destruction of Gaza”. This resulted in an outpouring of articulate and well-supported responses by physicians, who were appalled by The Lancet’s substitution of distortion and bias for science. This included a published letter by the Israel Medical Association, written by Leonid Eidelman and Arnon Afek.
This letter served as a plan for our mission. Instead of just reading about Israel’s medical response in a sea of violence, doctors would go to Israel to see for themselves.
In a single page Drs. Eidelman and Afek had pointed out so much of what was right with Israel but was being missed by not just the original letter’s authors, but by the mainstream media and their readers. Israel has not just supplied humanitarian supplies to Gaza, including treating Arab injured, it has treated victims of the Syrian Arab on Arab violence, where over 200,000 have died with far less attention paid to their killings than given to the much smaller numbers of victims of Hamas perfidy in Gaza.
Indeed, more Arabs have been killed in three years of civil war in Syria, than in the Arabs’ 100 year war to prevent or destroy the state of Israel. Participating physicians met with colleagues at Ziv Medical Center in Safed. Despite a 90% occupancy rate, Ziv has admitted over 400 victims of Syria’s civil war, with average lengths of stay three times that of Israeli patients.
Soroka University Medical Center in Beer Sheva is minutes away from Gaza by helicopter. By necessity they have trauma bays that would be the envy of an American hospital. The Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, a world class rehabilitation facility is doing its best to alleviate the effects of recent violence in Israel, Gaza and Syria. As my professor of Physical Medicine used to say, the role of rehab is to “take the ‘dis’ out of disability”. And they are doing that daily.
The visiting physicians were moved by the dedication of the Ziv staff and the courage of badly injured Syrians, some children just guilty of no more than picking up bombs disguised as toys. Many of those hospitalized at Ziv were close to their homes in distance, but still far away from parents and family, who could not readily drive the few kilometers that separated them. We learned that even during the height of the violence, Gaza Arabs, including relatives of Hamas leaders, were transferred to Israeli medical centers for tertiary care not available in Gaza’s hospitals.
We visited the fortified transfer station at Erez crossing, where we saw surveillance videos of terrorist attacks on this crossing point that is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to patients from Gaza needing medical care in Israel. It is fortified because even humanitarian sites are not safe from terrorist attacks.
We also visited the MDA blood-processing center, also in Tel Hashomer. Ironically the next week back in Philadelphia, I was seeing a patient, referred for a rare disorder, who told me that her serum had been sent to Israel for evaluation for unusual antibodies. I told her that I had been at the MDA blood center the week before, reflecting on not just the extraordinary compassion but also the marvelous proficiency of Israel’s medical establishment
We were also briefed on human rights issues and international law at the IDC by Dr. Daphne Richemond-Barak, following an update from Dr. Eitan Azani about ISIS and what is happening in the region.
We had dinner with Prof. Elihu D. Richter, MD, MPH, head of the Genocide Prevention Program and Injury Prevention Center and Director of the Jerusalem Center for Genocide Prevention of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. A fellow physician, Richter has been struggling with responding to anti-Semitism for years, giving him a broad base of knowledge to learn from. We also met with Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor and professor of Political Studies at Bar Ilan University, exchanging insights on how in an era of struggles with advocates of BDS, physicians could best bring about a more accurate depiction of the medical aspects of Israel’s response to violence originating from their neighbors. NGO Monitor has been doing groundbreaking work in responding to medical NGOs that have substituted prejudice for sound science.
Finally, we met with Aryeh Green from MediaCentral and Hadar Sela from CAMERA Israel, who shared their insights on dealing with media and journalists, as well as their take on the bigger picture. Everywhere the response was a variation on the theme. Incredibly talented, bright and insightful Israeli professionals were struggling to get their stories out in a fair and honest way, often under the most adverse circumstances, and all while delivering world class care to those in need, regardless of their religion. Eager to help set the record straight, several of our group of visiting physicians have already submitted or published material based on what they learned. Others are collaborating with Israeli colleagues they met on the trip with a view towards creating submissions suitable for medical publications. Physicians bring unique skills to the table in combating what sometimes seems like a wave of anti-Israel slander.
As Rabbi Tarfon observed 2000 years ago, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it”.
John Cohn conceived and organized this medical mission. He is a Philadelphia physician and Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University. He is also Vice President of SPME.