A Palestinian child, wounded by Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip, receives treatment at Al-Shifa Hospital on May 19, 2021 in Gaza City, Gaza. Fatima Shbair/Getty Images
Murtaza Hussain, The Intercept, July 1 2021
After right-wing outrage, the esteemed journal removed an opinion piece expressing solidarity with Palestinians under Israeli bombardment.
Sabreen Akhter felt an urge to help in whatever way she could. Like many people around the world this May, Akhter was following news of war in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli bombardment was exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in the territory. Scanning her social media feed, Akhter, a doctor from Chicago, made contact with a few other health care professionals across the United States who had also been posting news online about the crisis.
Akhter set up a call to discuss what they could do, on behalf of their profession, for Palestinians. They settled on the idea of writing an article together as a group of medical workers concerned about the medical situation in Gaza and pitching it to Scientific American, where Akhter had published in the opinion section in the past.
“We didn’t know each other previously but had all been watching all of this violence and devastation happening in Palestine and were feeling helpless about it,” said Akhter. “I remembered that there had been an article published in The Lancet in 2014 about health care workers speaking up for Palestine. I thought it was really powerful at the time and remembered that a lot of people in the health care field had responded to it when it was published.”
On June 2, following an extensive editing and fact-checking process with the publication, the article ran in Scientific American under the headline “As Health Care Workers, We Stand in Solidarity with Palestine.”
Less than two weeks later, on June 11, the article was removed from Scientific American’s website without warning. A short editor’s note appeared in its place. “This article fell outside the scope of Scientific American and has been removed,” the note said. That same day, an editor from the publication emailed Akhter and the others, informing them of the retraction and apologizing for any “confusion” caused by the initial decision to publish the article.
“We were shocked, completely shocked. We all got on a call together and talked about it,” Akhter said. “We sent an email back to the editor later stating that we were disappointed and asking to clarify what they meant that the article had fallen ‘outside the scope,’ but we never got a response.”
The article was a summary of the health crisis taking place in the Gaza Strip as a result of the war, including the role of the conflict in exacerbating the Covid-19 pandemic. The authors categorically condemned the Israeli government for using disproportionate force and expressed support for the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel — a call that evidently triggered the anger of Israel supporters online.
Since the retraction, the authors of the article, which has since been posted online as a PDF, have faced a wave of harassing emails and messages. Right-wing pro-Israel groups gloated over the move by Scientific American.
Pro-Palestine activists, for their part, have been unsurprised, chalking it up as another example of an insidious campaign of free speech suppression that has for years targeted their cause.
“Palestinians have been facing systematic reprisal for their speech and activism,” said Marwa Fatafta, the Middle East and North Africa policy manager for Access Now, a digital rights organization. “Folks have lost their jobs, scholarships, and career futures destroyed for legitimate expression. And when your livelihood is on the line, you’re most likely think twice before you express yourself.”
“Labels of antisemitism and terrorism are also weaponized to publicly smear and intimidate Palestinians and their allies,” Fatafta said. “There are websites and social media pages dedicated to this very mission. Not to mention the relentless efforts to criminalize the BDS movement and any peaceful and nonviolent calls for boycott and accountability. It’s a witch-hunt.”
The debacle at Scientific American seemed to follow a familiar playbook of silencing pro-Palestinian speech in the United States.
Immediately after its publication, the article triggered a backlash in right-wing pro-Israel circles online, with the media advocacy organization CAMERA denouncing the article as an “anti-Israel screed parroting Palestinian terror groups’ lies and incitement.”
In the following days, Scientific American received a flood of emails from individuals espousing roughly that same message. The New York Post later reported that “a number of influential New Yorkers,” including New York Medical College Chancellor Edward Halperin, as well as other medical professionals, sent a letter of their own opposing the article.
A person with insight into Scientific American’s internal processes, who asked for anonymity to avoid backlash, said that the language used in the editor’s note was written in a manner intended to convey that the retraction was not due to any factual errors in the article itself.
Journalism experts contacted by The Intercept pointed to the curiosity of a retraction of an op-ed taking place in a reputable publication without any admission of factual errors.
“There are no official guidelines for how to make editorial decisions of this kind, but it’s definitely unusual and not in keeping with standard practice for a publication to withdraw an article that they find no factual errors in, particularly when it’s an opinion piece clearly marked as such,” said Alisa Solomon, a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism.
“If the facts are accurate, one can only conclude that it’s the expressed opinion that is being stifled.”
The Intercept reviewed an email chain with editors at the publication and the authors in which the article was meticulously fact-checked before publication to avoid errors in anticipation of the scrutiny that the editors expected would come once it ran. “We expect pushback for this one, so if you haven’t already checked everything carefully, it would be great if you could do so,” a Scientific American staffer wrote to a colleague, in an email chain in which the magazine’s staff went over details of the article’s factual claims.
“I fact-checked it closely against the links,” a top Scientific American editor wrote later in the chain, amid an extensive discussion of specific fact-checking queries with the author. “I found it generally well-supported by the links, though the way things are framed, in piece and links, is definitely controversial. I expect the pushback will mostly be about toine [sic] and interpretation, not that numbers are wrong and such.”
Solomon said the lack of factual inaccuracy pointed to an editorial problem with the opinions in the piece.
“If the facts are accurate, one can only conclude that it’s the expressed opinion that is being stifled,” said Solomon, an award-winning theater critic. “There’s a long record in American discourse of discussion of Palestine being thwarted and suppressed, whether it’s in art museums, theaters, unconstitutional laws aiming to forbid the promotion of BDS or, in this case, in a scientific magazine.”
Though the Scientific American article was taken down several weeks ago, news coverage of the incident only recently began to mount, especially in conservative media. In addition to the New York Post’s reporting on June 26, which linked to personal details about each of the authors on the piece, Fox News published a short story about the incident two days later. The story has also been covered in right-leaning pro-Israel outlets, like Algemeiner and the Jerusalem Post, whose coverage has effectively treated the retraction as a victory lap.
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The authors of the retracted Scientific American article, all of whom are medical professionals in the United States, have been inundated with hateful emails denouncing them as antisemitic and supporters of terrorists. These email writers have also frequently copied the health care workers’ employers or colleagues, in an apparent effort to have them fired.
One email sent to an author by a doctor from Toronto, which was shared with The Intercept, had copied several of the author’s Jewish colleagues at the hospital where they worked. “Israel is real,” the email said. “Your river to the sea ideal is an active wish for the destruction of the Jewish state, with Jerusalem as its capital.” The letter writer added, “I hope your department assists in tempering your anti-Semitism.”
“It’s really unfortunate when you can’t even speak to the truth as health care personnel on this subject without being silenced.”
The retraction and the ongoing harassment campaign targeting their reputations and livelihoods has had a negative effect on the authors, some of whom declined to go on the record for fear of more harassment. For her part, Akhter said she is disappointed but not entirely surprised by Scientific American’s apparent folding in the face of organized pressure to quash an article.
“I think it’s really sad, that any criticism of Israel, especially from health care workers calling out health care disparity and destruction, would be considered antisemitic and that people would lob that accusation at us,” Akhter said. “I knew that this happened in other forms of media, but it was hard to imagine it taking place in a medical and scientific journal. It’s really unfortunate when you can’t even speak to the truth as health care personnel on this subject without being silenced.”
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