Why did Scientific American censor Gaza solidarity call?

A man rests by the open back of an ambulance

Israel’s latest attack had a marked effect on Gaza’s healthcare workers

Bashar Taleb APA images

On 2 June, not long after the cessation of Israel’s May assault on Gaza, Scientific American published an opinion article titled, “As Health Care Workers, We Stand in Solidarity with Palestine.”

The article was an argument that as part of their responsibility for the “well-being and sustenance of all human life,” US healthcare workers should feel free to speak out about Palestine.

It further argued that those in the field should endorse the “standards set forth” by the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

“We must honor the fundamental responsibilities conferred through our oath and our core bioethical principles by individually and collectively demanding accountability and an end to all forms of oppression from the Israeli state, as well as from our own countries and institutions, upon all Palestinian people.”

It lasted nine days. On 11 June, the article was taken down from the Scientific American website after editors apparently decided that the article “fell outside the scope” of the magazine, an explanation that left readers and authors nonplussed.

It was left to the New York Post to report that the article was “swiftly retracted” after a letter to the editor signed by more than 100 scientists, among them three Nobel Prize winners.

Predictable response

Such an effective response from pro-Israel academics might have been predicted.

“I am not surprised,” said Steven Rose, a neuroscientist, emeritus professor at Open University and co-founder in 1969 of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, about the fate of the article.

“I know very, very well and painfully the huge pressure that can be put on by the Israeli counter-boycott [effort],” Rose told The Electronic Intifada.

In 2014, he was one of the original signatories to a letter to the British medical journal, The Lancet, protesting Israel’s devastating assault on the Gaza Strip that year that left more than 2,200 people dead.

The publication of that letter was met by a storm of protest from pro-Israel scientists around the world and resulted in threats being leveled at the journal’s editor and his family.

Such pressure has had a lasting effect.

Last year, The Lancet pulled another letter calling on Israel to end the siege on Gaza because of the blockade’s pernicious effects on healthcare in Gaza generally and the struggle to combat COVID-19 specifically, and after a similar campaign against the journal.

And with social media platforms accused of collaborating with the Israeli government to silence Palestinian voices, not least during May’s assault on Gaza, pressure on platforms that carry viewpoints challenging Israel’s official discourse remains considerable and influential.

“The Israeli government … is prepared to spend millions” on countering BDS, Steven Rose pointed out, referencing the task force in Israel’s strategic affairs ministry set up for that specific purpose.

No comment

Scientific American did not just remove the article. The headline was changed, removing the word “solidarity” and changing “Palestine” to Palestinians. No notice was given to the authors.

“We were not warned before it was taken down,” said one of the authors, who asked not to be named for this article. Nor were the writers informed of the headline change.

Until now, the author told The Electronic Intifada, “we have yet to receive any explanation for why it was taken down.”

Scientific American declined to provide further explanation. A spokesperson would only offer a similar rationale to that posted online, that “after publication, it was decided that this opinion and analysis piece fell outside our scope of coverage.”

The magazine – owned by Springer Nature, in which the German family-run Holtzbrinck Publishing Group holds a majority share – would not be drawn on whether this was due to outside pressure.

The New York Post did publish extracts from the letter it said had been sent to Scientific American to protest the article. The letter writers – who included Stanley J. Robboy of the Duke Cancer Institute and Edward C. Halperin, chancellor of New York Medical College – described the original article as a “one-sided invective.”

“While purporting to be a scientific statement about public health, the paper addressed important historical and political issues superficially, inaccurately, and prejudicially,” the letter read, as reported by the New York Post. “In reality, the piece is a call for activism that, in our view, is unsupported by the facts.”

Facts, damn facts

One such “fact,” and one of the biggest “sticking points,” according to the New York Post, for the eminent but angry letter writers to the Scientific American was that the original article had omitted to mention that under the 1993 Oslo accords, the Palestinian Authority was responsible for providing healthcare to Palestinians.

That argument has been trotted out several times by Israel’s defenders as a way to excuse Israel’s refusal to provide vaccines to Palestinians in occupied territory in the battle against the spread of COVID-19 and generally let Israel off the hook for its control over the Palestinian health sector, especially in the Gaza Strip, which has been under Israeli blockade for 15 years and suffers a chronic shortage of essential medicines as a direct result.

It ignores several facts about Israel’s occupation. The PA is in full civilian control of only some 40 percent of the occupied West Bank and has no control over borders or imports.

Israel restricts all goods that come in and out of the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, including medicines and medical equipment.

And finally, as has been pointed out by several human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Israel’s B’Tselem, the Oslo accords do not supercede Israel’s obligations under the Geneva conventions under which an occupying power has ultimate responsibility for the health of the occupied population.

The angry but eminent letter writers to Scientific American may not agree that Israel should bear responsibility for the Palestinian health sector. That it does, however, is an entirely logical inference based on international law and the reality on the ground.

Science and politics

None of the authors of the original piece have seen the letter of complaint that was reportedly sent to Scientific American. But the fact that the article came down without “any indication from the editors that there was unease about the article” prior to publication, suggested that “the weight of external political forces” had been brought to bear.

“The decision of the editors to remove our article serves as one of many examples of outright censorship of scholarship and advocacy dedicated to ensuring Palestinians have adequate access to healthcare and a right to live in freedom,” the authors told The Electronic Intifada.

The climate around public discourse on Israel in the US and Europe, is laughably fraught. Even the decision by an ice cream company to not sell its products in illegal Israeli settlements in occupied territory has been described as a “new form of terror.”

In the less emotive environs of scientific and academic journals, the idea that science should somehow stay above the political fray is one that is often used to criticize attempts at invoking the social responsibility of scientific and academic communities.

But, Steven Rose argued, those arguments are usually fraught with inconsistency.

“The question I would want to ask the signatories of the letter of opposition to the article in Scientific American is, if it related to the Uighurs in China, rather than the Palestinians in Gaza, would they have raised the same objections?”

Moreover, with the apparent targeting of Palestinian healthcare professionals and facilities, politics is clearly encroaching on science and academia, in this case healthcare workers.

“Those of us who work in healthcare understand well that health care does not exist in a vacuum,” the original article read. “We increasingly understand how structural forces, systematized and institutionalized oppression, racism, violence, disinvestment and displacement, as well as policies meant to deny people their basic human rights, lead to adverse health outcomes and mortality.”

If “we remain silent on these issues,” the article concluded, “it is due to our own positions of privilege and relative safety.”

Omar Karmi is an independent journalist and former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.