Medical journal made me ill

A piece of anti-Israel propaganda in an esteemed scientific journal compels me to write to the editor

By Daniel Finkelstein, March 5, 2009

Dear Editor of the British Medical Journal,

I have just taken delivery of your February 28 edition and have, as usual, been enjoying its contents. There were two compelling papers on the “Effectiveness of nurse delivered endoscopy” and you entertain your readers also with a meta-regression analysis of randomised controlled trials on the association between change in high density lipoprotein and cardiovascular disease morbidity.

Oh, and you devote more than seven pages to complaining that Jews send you too many emails.

Let’s see if I have understood this properly. In 2004, your journal published an article entitled “Palestine: the assault on health and other war crimes”. As a result, you received “almost 1,000” emails. Many contained the same text, leading your staff to believe that 22 per cent were the result of an internet campaign by the HonestReporting website. Others were abusive or failed reasonably to address the article’s arguments.

Hence, more than four years later, you published an article by a man called Karl Sabbagh analysing the correspondence and suggesting that it constituted an attempt to intimidate the journal. Since Sabbagh argues that an article he himself had written in World Medicine in 1981 led to the magazine being closed following a letter campaign by Zionists, you decided to publish a further two pages on that controversy from a quarter-of-a-century ago and invited doctors to make the comparison between the two incidents. There were more than six pages making these points. Jonathan Freedland was then allowed a little more than a page to respond.

At the end of Sabbagh’s piece it was suggested his article had been peer reviewed — an interesting term to use. A peer review is the process of scrutiny you would expect from one of the country’s leading scientific journals. And I was surprised to see it suggested that Sabbagh’s article had been peer reviewed since it failed the obvious tests a scientific study should pass.

First, there was his sample. Sabbagh’s piece suggested that correspondence campaigns of the kind experienced by the BMJ were designed to censor and had been successful in this aim. However, as data he provided one example in which he, the article’s author, was the main participant. Shouldn’t a scientific journal have expected Mr Sabbagh to support his hypothesis with a larger data set? Just asking.

Then there was the contention that 1,000 emails constituted a large campaign. This was central to the suggestion that the campaign was seriously intimidating. But is that true? Is 1,000 a large number? Naturally, you don’t get that many printing a paper on liposuction. But what about on other controversial issues? Shouldn’t a scientific paper support that assertion with some facts? Many journalists and politicians have received similar volumes of correspondence on occasion. I know I have.

Karl Sabbagh’s piece was accompanied by a selection of statements from the emails. They did seem abusive and a little obtuse. Can I trust that the peer reviewers checked that the selection was representative?

Then one gets to Sabbagh’s central point — quite an offensive and aggravating point. But that shouldn’t stop you printing it if it is true. Indeed, it would be your duty. His central point is that supporters of Israel routinely use emails to intimidate others into silence. Does this strike you as likely? Isn’t Israel almost constantly the subject of criticism? If it is true that Jews are trying to silence people, we aren’t doing a very good job.

Sabbagh’s piece strongly suggests that it is solely supporters of Israel who send abusive emails. I can attest that this is not the case. Perhaps the reason why the BMJ has not received, as I have, a large volume of abuse from people who dislike Israel is that it has never published anything that would give Israel’s opponents cause to complain. Wouldn’t a scientific paper on correspondence have attempted to look at responses to all sorts of different opinions on the Middle East?

In other words, the suggestion that this paper was peer reviewed is designed to give a scientific sheen to what was a polemic. Doctors will have assumed, on seeing that note about a peer review, that they were reading something that accorded to basic academic standards. They were not. Karl Sabbagh was not attempting to provide analysis. He was attempting to turn doctors against Israel and its supporters. Printing a page from a Jew who disagrees is not the point.

The point is subjecting papers to proper, scientific scrutiny. You did not do so. Instead, you lent your journal to propagandists and their agenda.

Yours ever, Daniel Finkelstein.

Daniel Finkelstein is associate editor of The Times

Last updated: 3:19pm, March 5 2009