When Hostility to Israel Hijacks Science

When The Lancet runs a one-sided, unfounded open letter accusing Israelis of the indiscriminate massacre of Palestinian children, it’s not just an Israel or Jewish problem - it’s a problem for academia as a whole.

Leeat Granek
Leeat Granek
An illustrative image of a medical lab in the central Israeli city of Givat Shmuel.
An illustrative image of a medical lab in the central Israeli city of Givat Shmuel. Credit: Lior Mizrahi / BauBau
Leeat Granek
Leeat Granek

On July 23rd the prestigious and world-renowned medical journal The Lancet published an editorial entitled “An Open Letter to the People of Gaza” signed by medical professionals around the globe. The essay uses inflammatory language to accuse Israelis of indiscriminately massacring Palestinian children, fabricating the reason for Israel’s military engagement in Gaza, and implying the use of gas to murder civilians. While there is always room for critique and dialogue, these extreme allegations are one-sided, unreferenced and unfounded.

More shockingly, the authors state that since only 5 percent of Israeli academics signed a petition against the current military operation, the authors “are tempted to conclude that with the exception of this 5 percent, the rest of Israeli academics are complicit in the massacre and destruction of Gaza.”

These are distressing, manipulative, inflammatory, and deeply disturbing allegations, however, what is even more shocking is the platform in which they were published.

The Lancet is an internationally known medical journal whose stated purpose is to publish and disseminate factually documented medical and scientific research. It is intended to be an objective, peer-reviewed enterprise to broaden access to medical knowledge for all peoples. No matter what your view on the current Mideast crisis, The Lancet or any other medical journal is not supposed to be a political publication used to further the personal agendas of the editorial board or its contributors.

Historically, academics were charged with the role of being the public conscience of society. In 1967, Noam Chomsky wrote in the context of the Vietnam War: “The responsibility of the intellectual is to speak the truth and to expose lies.”

But which truth takes precedence and who decides what is a lie?

An astonishing amount of words have gone into reporting on the Gaza-Israel conflict over the past few weeks at the expense of reporting on other conflicts. What has become clear as any reader of the comments section on Facebook or in any newspaper can attest is that the facts about the situation are hotly contested.

Although academics are trained to be critical thinkers, they are human, and can be as biased and subjective in their reporting of facts as anyone else. This goes for those on the right and those on the left - those who are pro-Israel, those who are pro-Hamas - and those who fall somewhere in the complicated middle.

Given that this is the case, it is objectionable that a purportedly scientific journal should publish a political polemic, but if it does, we would have expected the editors of a such a publication with the reputation and credentials such as The Lancet to follow due diligence and to check the facts. Instead controversial unfounded opinions are passed as truth, compromising the very nature of their professional credibility and mission.

At the very least, the journal could have invited a contributor to immediately provide a counter-argument to present another, and therefore, more balanced view of the situation as is normally the case when publishing a controversial manuscript in a scientific journal. Not only did they fail to do so, the editors belatedly published a bare handful of truncated letters in support of Israel and nearly a dozen in support of the open letter.

The only thing this kind of demagoguery achieves is more violence, rage, and divisiveness among academics, which serves no-one. The Lancet, in publishing this essay, has done a significant disservice to its reputation, its readership and its so-called “stringent peer-review process that ensures the continuing scientific merit and clinical relevance.”

Moreover, publishing political screeds in medical journals causes enormous damage to the environment of collaboration that is necessary to foster scientific progress.

Those in the medical community understand this exceptionally well. The sharing of data, the shared research endeavors, and the gathering at professional conferences with people one might consider an enemy in any other context has led to dramatic medical discoveries for the betterment of all humankind. The international sharing of data on Alzheimer's disease is one case in point. Israeli scientists (four of whom have won the Nobel Prize) have contributed dramatic medical discoveries in almost every area that have saved hundreds of thousands of lives the latest of which includes working on finding the cure for Ebola. Indiscriminately accusing all Israeli academics of being complicit in what the open letter’s authors call a massacre because they didn't sign one specific document smacks of the Salem witch hunts, is not good for collegiality, and is nothing short of a catastrophe for science.

We all lose when politics hijacks science. The Lancet has crossed over the line with the publication of this essay. The public and the medical and academic communities should not stand idly by when one set of editors decide on what they will publish based on the researcher's political beliefs, nationality, religion, or ethnicity. In recent days, a group of close to 9,000 medical professionals from around the globe have responded to The Lancet open letter by calling for the resignation of the editor, Richard Horton, who is responsible for the publication of the original anti-Israel essay.

No editor or contributor in any scientific publication has the right to abuse their power, privilege and platform to further their own political agendas.

Dr. Leeat Granek is a critical health psychologist and researcher in the Department of Public Health in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva, Israel. Her research expertise is in grief and loss, psycho-oncology, and women's health.

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