'British Medical Journal' complains of 'obscene' attacks by pro-Israel lobby

Journal declares it will "ignore" all "orchestrated e-mail campaigns."

bmj 88 (photo credit: )
bmj 88
(photo credit: )
The editors of the 'BMJ' (British Medical Journal)'s widely read print and Internet editions have declared that they will "ignore" all "orchestrated e-mail campaigns" related to politics, and have just published an article strongly criticizing the "pro-Israel lobby" for using this weapon in the form of "pornographic," "abusive" and "obscene" attacks - many by people "who have never read the original articles" they comment on. Fiona Godlee and Tony Delamothe of the London-based general medical journal (www.bmj.com) write in an editorial that appears on Wednesday that such nasty e-mail messages and letters will be regarded as "not worth the paper they're written on" and suggesting that "authors, editors, publishers, advertisers and shareholders do the same." Five articles appear in the latest issue; one is by Karl Sabbagh, who describes himself as "the British son of a Palestinian father [who] has been the target of pressure from supporters of Israel's policies against the Palestinians." He writes about nearly 2,000 "hostile e-mails" about an 2004 BMJ article criticizing the "systematic violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention by the Israeli army in Gaza," by Derek Summerfield, an honorary senior lecturer at London's Institute of Psychiatry and a teaching associate at Oxford University. Sabbagh says that most of the pro-Israel e-mails were generated by HonestReporting, a Web site that "claims to be the largest Israel media advocacy group in the world." Yet there was no evidence that any of the authors of these e-mails had actually read the BMJ article they were criticizing, Sabbagh maintains. In his analysis of the e-mails nearly five years after the Summerfield article appeared, Sabbagh concluded "that the BMJ was the target of an orchestrated campaign to silence criticism of Israel. "There is nothing intrinsically wrong with organizing an effective lobby group," writes Sabbagh, "but the ultimate goal of some of the groups that lobby for Israel or against Palestine is apparently the suppression of views they disagree with." Sabbagh also charged that as a result of another pro-Israel campaign, the International Diabetes Foundation recently apologized for an article on the difficulties faced by diabetic Palestinians in Gaza, and the editor of the foundation's Diabetes Voice on-line journal resigned. He also describes a similar experience in 1981 when World Medicine, a popular medical magazine, published an article criticizing then-prime minister Menachem Begin, and says the pro-Israel campaign "led to the dismissal of Michael O'Donnell as editor and the closure of the magazine." "Such campaigns cannot be allowed to succeed - not so much because they are wrong about the issues - but because their ultimate aim is censorship and suppression by means of intimidation," Sabbagh concludes. Writer and broadcaster O'Donnell, who was editor of World Medicine for 15 years, writes in the new BMJ issue that the British journal should be "applauded" for publishing Sabbagh's analysis. "The best way to blunt the effectiveness of this type of bullying is to expose it to public scrutiny," he wrote. He added that some of the hostile and even disgusting letters he received were addressed to his children. O'Donnell, who identifies himself as being in a family "linked harmoniously by marriage to an Israeli Jewish family that has contributed to the political and cultural development of Israel," says most of the messages came from the US. British journalist Jonathan Freedland, who describes himself as "a trustee of Index on Censorship, which campaigns for freedom of expression" and whose "mother was born in Palestine in 1936," suggests the BMJ "grow a thicker skin. In today's wired world, he says, wading into any topic of controversy triggers a deluge of e-mails. "It simply comes with the territory... The harsh reality is that what Sabbagh described as a rare, exceptional event is increasingly common - and clearly not confined to the Israel-Palestine conflict." Freedland, who is Jewish, added that "there is a strong desire to see the pressure from pro-Israel activists as somehow unique. But each of the elements Sabbagh cites - demands for resignations, the enlisting of non-readers of the publication involved - have been present in these other cases. "True, Israel-Palestine probably generates more venom than most topics, but that is hardly one-way traffic. In January 2009, anti-Israel activists forced their way into the offices of the pro-Israel lobby group, the British Israel Communications and Research Center (BICOM), damaging computer equipment, cutting phone lines and throwing documents out of the window. "True, BICOM is a partisan lobbying organization, not an independent medical journal like the BMJ. But that episode surely represents a rather more direct attempt at silencing a point of view than sending nasty e-mails," Freeland says. Prof. Elihu Richter, a public health expert and head of the Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Public Health and Community Medicine's Genocide Prevention Program, told The Jerusalem Post: "My own direct personal experience with the BMJ is that it does have a bias against things Jewish and Israeli." By contrast with the "repetitive opinion pieces the BMJ has published by Summerfield and others, it has rejected quality papers from Israeli researchers, including one on the fine trauma care Hadassah provides for all, including Palestinians, for the flimsiest of pretexts," he says. "The problems seen with the BMJ are also seen in Britain's other leading general medical journal, The Lancet, whose editor, Richard Horton, published a report on Gaza years ago that was full of misinformation and distortions based hearsay... and invokes double standards, includes mis- and disinformation, and implicitly accepts a lower standard for the value of human life of Israelis than it does for his own," Richter continues. He called Horton and Godlee "the Ferdinand and Isabella of medical journals" (these Spanish rulers in 1492 banished the Jews from the country). The new BMJ issue also published an article by Prof. Mark Clarfield, chief of geriatrics at Soroka University Medical Center and Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, who was invited to publish four postings from his own blog about the Second Lebanon War in the BMJ. "Despite my attempts to concentrate in the blog on medical matters, a number of responses actually had little or nothing to do with the content of my postings. Some were vituperative, blaming Israel for all kinds of purported war crimes and misdemeanors. "Curiously, these authors never seemed to address the fact that Israel was responding to the breaking of a cease-fire that had just preceded eight years of unprovoked missile attacks on its southern and sovereign territory," Clarfield says.