Opinion: Israeli health care providers say they feel betrayed by friends and colleagues

Editor’s Note: Dr. Leana S. Wen is an emergency physician, professor of health policy and management at George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Previously, she served as Baltimore’s health commissioner. View more opinion articles on CNN.

On October 7, 2023, Hamas terrorists massacred more than 1,400 Israeli civilians. They executed elaborate plans to infiltrate communities with the explicit goal to murder. Babies were not spared, nor the elderly or women.

Terrorists entered homes and blew up their safe rooms. They hunted down young people attending a music festival and shot them at point blank. Over 220 Israelis were kidnapped and remain hostages.

In the immediate aftermath, physicians, nurses, paramedics and other health care professionals on the frontlines treated wounded patients, all the while worrying that their own families could be among those hurt or killed. Dr. Itamar Grotto, former deputy director of Israel’s Ministry of Health, told me that those further away from the fighting helped people who fled their homes and needed ongoing medical care, like medications for diabetes and treatments like dialysis.

Now, as physicians and other health care professionals continue to tend to the medical needs of their patients and reckon with their own trauma, they feel another emotion they hadn’t expected: betrayal.

Professor Zachi Grossman, a primary care pediatrician in Tel Aviv and the president of the Israel Pediatric Association, told me that he and his colleagues have found themselves confronted with declarations from medical societies and papers published in scientific journals that contain inaccurate and inflammatory statements.

This is causing “a lot of sadness to see that intellectuals, physicians and journal editors, who are supposed to be objective, ignore facts and report only half the truth,” he said.

He pointed to an editorial published recently in the British Medical Journal Global Health. Entitled “Violence in Palestine demands immediate resolution of its settler colonial root causes,” it gives alleged examples of “a long history of Israeli violence against health workers.” The October 7 massacre is mentioned in the context that “it is impossible to divorce the violence of recent days from the long history of the Israeli occupation of Palestine”.

I can understand why this is so upsetting to Grossman and his colleagues. Such an editorial lacks the rigor, proof and nuance that would be required for virtually any other scientific paper under established norms. Moreover, anything that does not begin with a strong condemnation the Hamas attacks, and instead discusses historical injustices against Palestinians, reads as if the October 7 massacre is somehow justified — that Israelis brought this barbaric tragedy upon themselves.

Grossman takes particular issue with how the editorial described the explosion at Gaza’s Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital. Many major news organizations, including CNN and The New York Times, have noted that their initial reporting attributing the destruction to an Israeli airstrike was inaccurate and based on unverified claims from Hamas. The US government has since assessed that Israel was not responsible for the blast; instead, it was “likely caused by an errant rocket or missile launch carried out the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”

Yet, the editorial, published days after independent intelligence assessments, continues to discuss the hospital missile strike in the context of Israeli attacks on Palestinian health care infrastructure. Misleading information exacts a heavy human toll, as the medical community experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic. This is seen again now, as the misattribution of that hospital attack sparked uprisings and anti-Israel protests including in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia.

I was also moved by something another long-time leader in Israeli health care said. Ido Hadari, a senior health care executive who has worked with two hospitals and the Ministry of Health, told me about many instances where Israeli clinicians treated patients from Gaza and the West Bank, including children with cancers and other complex medical needs.

“All of us will treat the next patient as if it’s our father or our son,” he said. These dedicated clinicians are deeply upset about the deaths of Palestinian children and other innocent people caught in Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, and I can see why they would be horrified to read the term “genocide” used to describe Israelis, as some in the international medical community have done.

Special terrain ambulance brings injured people to the Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv from the south following a Hamas incursion into Israeli settlements around the Gaza strip. - Matan Golan/SOPA Images/Getty Images
Special terrain ambulance brings injured people to the Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv from the south following a Hamas incursion into Israeli settlements around the Gaza strip. - Matan Golan/SOPA Images/Getty Images

The overwhelming sentiment from the Israeli health professionals I spoke with is that they feel betrayed by their counterparts. Members of other countries’ professional societies, whom they considered their friends and professional colleagues, who once wrote articles with them, collaborated on projects, with whom they shared meals and went to conferences together, are writing blanket condemnations of Israel rather than the terrorists who orchestrated the slaughter on October 7.

Clinicians and scientists thinking of signing such statements should take a step back and ask themselves three questions.

First, is the statement they’re endorsing fully accurate? Just as we would be careful to look for any inaccuracy in scientific papers, we should in position statements. We would never put our name to a paper with even one inaccurate fact; we shouldn’t sign onto petitions with false, unverified or misleading information, either. And just as we wouldn’t co-author scientific papers where we disagree with some of the conclusions, we should also exercise restraint when signing onto statements unless we agree with all points made.

Second, what are the consequences of taking a public political position? The patients we treat come from all backgrounds. Taking a contentious political position could alienate patients and call our objectivity into question. This concern extends also to medical journals.

For instance, I think it was a major mistake for the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine to publish an editorial in 2020 that essentially called on readers to vote against then-President Donald Trump. To analyze the impact of Trump’s Covid-19 policies is one thing; to take an overtly partisan position like this further erodes the already tenuous trust in medicine and science.

Third, is there a better way to state our values? Like members of the general public, many clinicians are understandably angry and frustrated by current events. But being clear about their values shouldn’t mean they have to point fingers. It’s possible to plead for humanitarian assistance for people in Gaza and to mourn the many innocent Gazan lives lost without using inflammatory activist language that could be perceived as antisemitic rhetoric.

I also think it’s crucial that we refrain from comparing people’s suffering. In our clinical work, we don’t ask ourselves whose pain is worse, a patient with lung cancer or another with heart failure. And we never justify a patient’s suffering by blaming them for what they may or not have done in the past—or for what their government did. Instead, we sympathize with the patient for what they are going through, and we lend our voice and our expertise to help them through their pain.

In this case, those of us who are not Israeli or Jewish, like myself, have an obligation to do better by our Israeli and Jewish colleagues. We were “expecting to have more support from other medical associations, academic institutions and international health organizations”, Grotto told me. He and other clinicians I spoke with expressed their feeling of isolation; so many who are normally their friends and colleagues have seemingly turned their backs on them in a time of great sadness.

We need to be better allies. We must condemn the terrorist attacks and sympathize over the unimaginable tragedies on October 7. This does not mean that we can’t also disagree with the Israeli government’s historical policies or their current actions. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also do more to help the unfolding public health catastrophe in Gaza. And it certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also be allies to our Palestinian colleagues. We must just as forcefully denounce Islamophobia as we do antisemitism and all forms of hatred and discrimination.

But we must also show our shared humanity and our solidarity. “Never again” means not forgetting the murders of Jews in the past and not keeping silent in the face of present-day atrocities.

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