Intended for healthcare professionals

Analysis Personal paper

Perils of criticising Israel

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 25 February 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:a2066
  1. Karl Sabbagh

    The BMJ’s acting editor received 1000 emails after the journal published an article criticising Israel in 2004. Karl Sabbagh examined them and is reminded of what happened when the magazine World Medicine criticised Israel 27 years ago

    In October 2004, the BMJ published a personal view by Derek Summerfield in which he expressed his concern at what he saw as systematic violations of the fourth Geneva Convention by the Israeli army in Gaza.1 The article claimed that many of the actions deemed necessary to root out and prevent terrorism had had the foreseeable effect of killing or maiming large numbers of Palestinians, including children, who had played no part in attacks on Israelis. (This issue is, of course, at the heart of worldwide criticisms of Israel’s actions in Gaza last month.) Summerfield supported his arguments with figures published by reputable international organisations, such as the United Nations and Amnesty International.

    Summerfield’s article provoked hundreds of responses, about 550 of which the BMJ published as rapid responses.2 Of these, a small proportion were broadly supportive of Summerfield’s article, but most were hostile. Reading them might give the impression of a civilised debate in progress, but the published responses were a skewed sample of what had been received, as abusive and obscene contributions were not posted.

    Emails to editor

    In addition to responses sent to the website, almost 1000 emails were sent directly to Kamran Abbasi, the BMJ’s acting editor at the time. An analysis of all these emails provides a less benign view of what editors face when entering this thorny debate. A general flavour of the feedback can be gathered from a few verbatim quotes (box 1).

    Box 1 Extracts from emails sent to Kamran Abbasi

    • “The IDF, unlike the Arabs, has NEVER killed innocent civilians.”

    • “It is known that the Israeli army is one of the most …

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