June 17, 2019

Doctors strike back after anti-Israel letter in Lancet

Angered by a controversial anti-Israel letter published in late July by the respected medical journal The Lancet, doctors in North America and Europe are calling on academic publishing giant Reed Elsevier to reform its editorial policy. The question is whether Elsevier will listen.

An online petition started by Toronto endocrinologist Daniel Drucker on Oct. 10 had garnered just under 2,200 signatures as of Oct. 20, with prominent doctors throughout the United States, Canada, Israel and Great Britain expressing their dismay. Included on the list, posted on change.org, are Dr. Francine Kaufman, a physician and endocrinologist at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles and chief medical officer in Medtronic’s diabetes medical device supply line; Dr. Mayer Davidson, a medical professor at UCLA; and Dr. Shlomo Melmed, the dean of medical faculty at Cedars- Sinai Medical Center.

Drucker, a senior researcher at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, wrote to the Jewish Journal on Oct. 15 that while conversations with Elsevier had been going on for 10 weeks, “tangible progress has been scant to date.” Elsevier — worth more than $32 billion — and its CEO, Swedish businessman Erik Engstrom, have done little, if anything, to change The Lancet’s editorial policies, and the medical journal’s editor, London-born Richard Horton, has refused to apologize for or retract the letter, which sharply condemned Israel for its military conduct in Gaza.

In late July, as Hamas and Israel entered the third week of a bloody 50-day war, 24 European doctors, mostly from Italy and the United Kingdom, wrote a scathing attack against Israel titled “An Open Letter for the People in Gaza,” accusing Israel of targeting Palestinian civilians “under the guise of punishing terrorists,” creating a national security emergency “to masquerade a massacre” and further condemning all but a slim minority of Israeli academics as being “complicit in the massacre” for not appealing to the government to cease its operation.

“These attacks aim to terrorize, wound the soul and the body of the people, and make their life impossible,” read the letter, which more than 20,000 people have signed in support. Last month, it remained the third-mostpopular piece of content on The Lancet’s website.

Critics of the letter noted the anti-American and anti-Israel views and past outbursts of some of the letter’s authors, including Norwegian doctor Mads Gilbert. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Gilbert indicated his support for Al Qaeda’s operation, telling a Norwegian tabloid, “The suppressed have a moral right to attack the United States. … I support the attack within the context I have mentioned.”

Responding to the recent letter, a group of nine doctors in the U.K., U.S. and Israel, including Muslim-British physician Qanta Ahmed, published a response in The Lancet one month later accusing the letter’s authors of penning “an outrageous diatribe lacking context.” They criticized the medical journal for becoming a “platform for distorted political activism” and called on The Lancet to retract the letter and “reassess its practice of biased publishing in the service of polarizing political interests of one group.” 

One of those who signed this response, Peretz Lavie, the president of Technion–Israel Institute of Technology and an expert in neuroscience and sleep, told the Journal that The Lancet initially rejected the group’s letter but backtracked after a major U.S. publisher threatened to run the letter if Horton did not accept it. 

“After two weeks we got a straight answer [from The Lancet] — ‘Your paper is rejected’ 

— without any explanation,” Lavie said. “We decided to put the pressure on Lancet; abracadabra, they accepted our letter verbatim, without any change.” 

Horton was not available for interview, according to a Lancet spokeswoman, who did not respond to a follow-up request for comment from officials at Elsevier. 

Considered one of the world’s leading medical journals, The Lancet was founded in England in 1823 and has offices in London, New York and Beijing. In recent years, it has become another platform for debate regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but its political content appears to have not strayed much further, with most other recent letters covering medical topics such as schizophrenia, tuberculosis, abdominal surgery and countless other health issues. 

Some doctors question why The Lancet provides any platform for political debate, while others, such as University of North Carolina endocrinologist Dr. John Buse, simply wonder how Horton thought it appropriate to publish the open letter. 

“I don’t think unbalanced, factually inaccurate, polarizing pieces serve any purpose in a legitimate journal of any kind,” Buse told the Jewish Journal. “That article couldn’t get into Time or Newsweek or The Guardian. I don’t think The New York Times would accept it as a paid advertisement.” 

Late last month, Buse sent an email to many of his colleagues, announcing that because Elsevier had not yet changed its editorial policy to prevent its medical journals from publishing similar letters in the future, he resigned from the editorial boards of Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology and Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice, another Elsevier journal. 

On Oct. 11, following Horton’s first visit to Israel — Dr. Karl Skorecki of Technion extended the invitation — he wrote in The Lancet that he regrets the “extreme” and “unintended” polarization caused by the letter and that his visit had many “moving moments.” 

While Horton stopped short of apologizing for the piece, he told the Times of Israel this week that he will “never publish a letter like that again” and that his visit made him aware of a “level of complexity” between Jews and Arabs that he said the letter did not convey. 

But without an official change to The Lancet’s or Elsevier’s editorial policy, Drucker wrote in an email that “promises of better judgment” are not enough: “The vile, malevolent, erroneous open letter has not been retracted and we need concrete deeds to rectify errors.”