Tower Magazine has reported in detail on the process by which The Lancet, one of the world’s preeminent medical journals, “was used as a major platform for anti-Israeli demonization campaigns under the façade of science and medicine…” Over a 13 year period, hundreds of politicised articles with distorted or unsupported claims and false allegations were published and these provided the source material for harsh criticism of Israel. These spurious sources are still cited today.
However, a turnaround occurred, by which Lancet’s editor, Richard Horton, came to acknowledge his error in allowing the medical journal to be used for political purposes. An expose was published in The Telegraph in 2014 which showed that the “open letter for the people of Gaza” published by The Lancet was completely biassed and unbalanced. It “condemned Israel in the strongest possible terms, but strikingly made no mention of Hamas’ atrocities”. The five principal authors of the letter had been long-standing and vociferous campaigners for the Palestinian cause. Two of the authors promoted the views of David Duke, a white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard and were conspiracy theorists.
The pressure on The Lancet editor, Richard Horton, over the publication of this letter led him to visit Israel and spend time with doctors at Haifa’s Rambam Hospital. At the end of the three day trip Horton stated that his visit to Israel was “a turning point for me and my relationship with this region.” While at Rambam, Horton made the following admission: “I need, very honestly, to set the record straight with you. First, I deeply regret the completely unnecessary polarization that publication of the letter by Paola Manduca caused (i.e. the open letter to Gaza)… Second…I was personally horrified at the offensive video that was forwarded by two of the authors of that letter. The worldview expressed in that video is abhorrent and must be condemned, and I condemn it.”
In an attempt to “undo the harm and tarnish of this episode”, Horton published a special edition of five papers. These were to “outline Israel’s achievements in health and health care, towards a goal of attaining universal health coverage for an unusually diverse population. The papers explore Israel’s unique history, challenges, and accomplishments, and the religious and regional influences that have had an impact on health. The Series also offers an insight into existing collaborations and potential future opportunities, and outlines extensive recommendations to address the persisting inequalities between population groups, and to further strengthen health-care delivery systems.”
Horton also criticized BDS campaigns, stating that “Boycotting academics and Israeli professionals, as led by the BDS Movement, is inefficient and will never be effective in helping shape public and political opinion that will promote a solution, on the contrary, it will harm these goals.
However, Horton refused to explicitly apologize for publishing the letter and refused to retract it or any of the other anti-Israel articles. As Tower Magazine report, “He acted as if some hidden hand led to the sudden appearance of the Gaza letter on the pages of The Lancet – ex machina – in a manner that he could not control.“
Honest Reporting covered the special issue on Israeli contributions to medicine in May 2017 and ended, “While it is too early to conclude that The Lancet has been permanently cured of what had been diagnosed as a terminal case of anti-Israel politicization, we certainly hope that the disease is now in remission”.
The Lancet example shows the importance of holding those in positions of power to account, through challenge in the public realm but also positive engagement with individuals. Horton’s trip to Israel gave him first-hand experience and was a starting point to begin to comprehend the complexity of the situation. The fact that spurious articles still circulate and are used as faulty evidence in the political discourse gives cause for concern. Everyone has a role to play in keeping leaders and newsmakers accountable, checking dubious sources of information, and relaying sound information whenever possible.