It was hard not to be disturbed by the recent violence in Israel and Gaza, which did not start in June but has been going on for years.
Especially troubling was the abuse of civilian populations on both sides by Hamas. Israelis were direct targets and Gazans were human shields, mutually linked in danger by Gaza’s political leaders, who have squandered vast amounts of humanitarian aid on weapons, attack tunnels and fortifications.
Physicians, in particular, were bothered by the use of hospitals as military command posts and rocket-launching sites in Gaza. Worst of all for physicians, dedicated to evidence-based practice, was the politicization of medical science for political means.
This reached a new low when the ordinarily well-regarded medical journal The Lancet published “An open letter for the people in Gaza.” Its publication online on July 22 came less than two weeks after the start of Operation Protective Edge.
That timeframe in itself was extraordinary. Israel started its operation on July 8. In two weeks, the authors had collected their data, evaluated it, written their letter, submitted it to the peer review process, had it reviewed by the The Lancet, and had it posted online.
Surely, that was record speed for publication in a medical journal, let alone one that styles itself as a leader in the field.
In language not usually seen in medical publications, the authors offered a distorted condemnation of Israel, concluding: “Only 5 percent 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 percent, the rest of the Israeli academics are complicit in the massacre and destruction of Gaza.”
The letter 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. The reaction included a response written by Leonid Eidelman and Arnon Afek of the Israel Medical Association, which was published by The Lancet.
In a single page, they 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 allowed humanitarian supplies to Gaza, 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 the far smaller numbers of victims of Hamas perfidy in Gaza.
The Lancet has a long history of anti-Israel bias, driven by its editor, Richard Horton, going back to at least 2007. At that time, he authored a long diatribe against Israel, focusing on its conflict with the Arabs, published in the The New York Review of Books.
Horton subsequently started the “Lancet Palestinian Health Alliance.” As noted by NGO Monitor, “The Lancet publishes reports and articles, holds annual conferences, and solicits research papers and studies that specifically focus on Palestinian issues, often in an overtly political context.”
Since then he has repeatedly returned to the topic, not just in his own journal, but in other venues, too.
Physicians are under increased scrutiny over potential conflicts of interest. Journals, universities and academic societies have strict policies governing physicians and the need to declare such potential conflicts.
This is usually thought to represent compensation of a tangible value. But a few minutes on Google makes it obvious that The Lancet’s editor has made criticism of Israel a key pillar of his personal professional career and linked The Lancet’s reputation as well to demonstrating Israel is at fault. Unfortunately, The Lancet has traded sound science for polemical violence.
That is a serious conflict of interest. By any reasonable standard, it disqualifies The Lancet’s editor from the peer review process as it relates to the Hamas war against Israel.
Some physicians are not only expressing outrage but are taking a step to educate our colleagues. We are organizing a five-day educational medical mission to Israel, starting Oct. 31, in conjunction with the Israel Medical Association. The intent is to bring physicians and other health care providers to Israel so they can see the facts on the ground for themselves.
Participants will be briefed on human rights issues, humanitarian relief and international law. They will meet with colleagues alleviating the effects of recent violence in Israel, Gaza and Syria.
This will enable them to enhance their own skills in dealing with casualties of conflict and natural disasters in their own communities, while enabling them to better participate in the debate and engage with their colleagues about Israel.
Is there a better way to counter BDS than to go to Israel? Is there a better way to reject the politicization of medicine than to see and hear from those on the frontlines combating Hamas and its medical journal allies’ media war of distortions?
John R. Cohn, M.D., is a Philadelphia physician and professor of medicine and pediatrics at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University