On the campus of Tel Aviv University, medical students rush up the front stairs of the Sackler School of Medicine, an 11-story behemoth named after the family that donated the funds to build it. They push open doors into the lobby where a sign reads in capital letters: “Dedicated to Mankind for the Health of All People.” Those words have a different ring now that some members of the Sackler family face allegations they helped trigger America’s opioid crisis.
By 2017, the opioid epidemic had left some 400,000 people dead from overdoses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About half of those deaths are estimated to be from prescription drugs, including OxyContin — the pain reliever made by the U.S. pharmaceutical giant owned by the Sacklers, Purdue Pharma.
Tel Aviv University, the most prominent beneficiary of the billionaire Sackler family in Israel, declined to comment on Haaretz’s question if it would, for example, remove the family name from its buildings — as activists have been pressuring institutions that have received Sackler money to do.
On Monday, Physicians for Human Rights in Israel said it had sent a letter to the dean of the Sackler School of Medicine requesting that the family’s name be removed.
In a statement, the organization said it had done so because of “the inherent, acute clash between the sense of the medical calling that the faculty strives to imbue in its students, seeking to highlight the humanistic and ethical aspects of practicing medicine, and the conduct of members of the Sackler family as it emerges from publications and lawsuits filed against them in different American states.”
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Sackler philanthropy has been particularly notable in the art world, where the name graces venues at the Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Whether for art or science, the name can also be found at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and on the campuses of Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, Yale and Beijing’s Peking University. Donations have also gone to the Louvre in Paris and Tate Modern in London.
But Tel Aviv’s Sackler school is the only medical school with the family name. The institution was dedicated in 1976 by the three Sackler brothers — Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond — who founded Purdue Pharma, which has made billions on OxyContin, which entered the market in 1996.
In 2007 the company pleaded guilty to charges of misleading physicians, regulators and patients about the product’s potential for abuse as a highly addictive drug. But this January, Massachusetts filed a lawsuit accusing certain family members of helping deceive the public about the drug, even telling their marketers to urge doctors to prescribe the highest-dose version to drive up profits.
According to the suit, Richard Sackler, a former president of Purdue Pharma and the son of Raymond Sackler, said in an email that people addicted to OxyContin “are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”
Purdue Pharma said in a statement that the suit is “part of a continuing effort to single out Purdue, blame it for the entire opioid crisis in the United States, and try the case in the court of public opinion rather than the justice system.”
Reuters reported Monday that the firm is now exploring filing for bankruptcy to address potentially significant liabilities from the thousands of lawsuits.
Tel Aviv University is also home to the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences, the Sackler Cellular & Molecular Imaging Center, and the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Institute of Biophysics. According to university publications, these are just some of more than 30 Sackler-supported units on campus.
“Practically every step you take on campus will lead you to a Sackler-supported unit …. Sackler is nothing short of a brand name at Tel Aviv University,” Tel Aviv University President Joseph Klafter said at a 2013 celebration for Raymond and Beverly Sackler at the UN Security Council chamber, where a prize was presented to the couple in the name of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by Israel’s UN ambassador.
In recent years, the Sacklers have also helped establish cooperative research projects, funding, for example, the Tel Aviv University-Harvard Astronomy Program and the Tel Aviv University-UC Berkeley Fund in the Physical, Biomedical and Engineering Sciences.
Most students approached by Haaretz at the Sackler School of Medicine last month said they knew little or nothing about the allegations against the family or Purdue Pharma. The school also has a program established in 1976 for American and Canadian students named after the Sackler family.
“This is a complicated situation; thousands of doctors have done their training here,” said Matan, an Israeli medical student who requested that his last name not be used. “But that doesn’t absolve the family members of wrongdoing if it’s eventually proved that they did something wrong. What might help is if the family donates money for rehabilitating people addicted to opioids.”
Activists say institutions have been complicit in the opioid crisis for not disavowing Sackler donations. In New York last month, they ramped up their efforts with protests at the Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museum of Art.
At the Guggenheim’s atrium, hundreds of activists tossed down a blizzard of “prescriptions,” followed by a “die-in.”
The demonstrations were led by the group PAIN – Prescription Addiction Intervention Now. They were organized by Nan Goldin, an art photographer whose work has appeared at the Guggenheim.
Protesters shouted, “Four hundred thousand dead lives due to addiction to OxyContin, we need to have the Sackler family name removed from this institution.” Amid empty pill bottles scattered at their feet, they chanted, “The Sackler family has profited from the loss of life.”
The activists then marched to the Metropolitan Museum of Art holding banners reading “Shame of Sackler” and chanting “Sacklers lie, people die.”
But Joshua C. Karlin, a longtime fundraising consultant in the Jewish world who now heads the group MajorGiftsNow, told Haaretz in an email that many obstacles block a returning of funds. For example, gifts large enough to name a building or an institution are usually governed by contracts.
“A charity cannot technically ‘give money back’ after accepting it and issuing a receipt for a charitable donation. They could however redirect, or regift the money to another not-for-profit organization such as a community foundation,” Karlin said.
“Another clause many organizations include in gift agreements now is one that allows the organization to remove a name if it becomes morally tainted. I am familiar with a Jewish Seniors Housing building that removed the name of the major donor from the building after he was involved in questionable financial dealings that become very public. No money was even returned or redirected,” he said.
Karlin said the issue of the Sackler name was especially complicated because only some family members were being sued regarding OxyContin. He said one answer could be to use Sackler wealth to do good in a different way. Some activists have suggested Sackler money be used to help those addicted to OxyContin.
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a leading ethicist in Israel, argues that donated money needs to be seen as kosher.
“One cannot take money that was not made ethically. If it was made profiting from a crime, one cannot use it. That doesn’t mean saying you have to destroy things that were built from money given in the past,” said Cherlow, the ethics chairman at both Israel’s organ donation association and Tzohar, a group that reaches out to secular Jews.
“One has to be careful, the family has lots of branches. But from now on the point everyone should make is that they can no longer use this money.”
As Cherlow put it, “We cannot be part of taking money that is not kosher. Part of our ethical education is that when you want to be ethical it costs something, you must make a sacrifice; that’s the meaning of ethics.”
According to sources, Richard Sackler, the family member at the center of the Massachusetts lawsuit, was once a donor to the pro-Israel U.S. think tank the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
An official for the organization told Haaretz in an email, “As a general practice, we do not comment on the foundations and philanthropists who support our mission. We focus on research and on developing policy options in response to the most serious national security threats facing Americans.”