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Are Israeli doctors complicit in Torture?




This is a long-running issue on which the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel has done valuable work over the years. There has been much dispute on the subject in the pages of the British Medical Journal and elsewhere. Here Dr Brian Robinson writes to Professor Vivienne Nathanson, Director of Professional Activities, British Medical Association (26 June) asking why the BMA is not speaking out.



Dear Dr Nathanson,

Further to our recent correspondence concerning the alleged role of Israeli doctors in facilitating interrogation sessions that use torture (for which there is now incontrovertible and mounting evidence), I thought you would be interested in the news item from the current Jewish Chronicle that I have copied below.

You may know that Dr. Ishai Menuchin, featured in the story, was the recipient, in 2003, of the Oscar Romero Award—
<> (“To persons or organizations who distinguish themselves by their courage and integrity in defense of human rights).

He is Executive Director of ‘The Public Committee against Torture in Israel’, a lecturer in the Department of Social Work at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, and also Director of the Jerusalem Spinoza Institute.

He was one of the first ‘refuseniks’ of the 1st Lebanon War and co-founded ‘Yesh Gvul’ (‘There is a limit’—a soldiers’ ‘refusal to serve’ movement.

According to his listing at the website he has published many papers on issues related to democracy, civil disobedience and selective refusal, and edited three books on the same topics. (See <> )

I mention this as preamble simply to empasise that here is a scholar whose statements on these matters cannot be casually dismissed. His record speaks for itself and we must examine—and I submit that the BMA must examine—what he says with utmost seriousness.

Just consider the following, from the Chronicle’s story: ‘[Dr Menuchin] criticised both the Israeli legal system and the supervising doctors “who sit back and allow torture to go unchecked”’. And: “There’s no public control of the secret services. Their level of legal protection gives them almost total legal immunity. The names of interrogators are often not recorded and they are not questioned about the methods that they use.”
The Chronicle continues: ‘Later, he claimed that his organisation had evidence of “five or six” doctors who have been “complicit” in torture since 2007’.

Surely the BMA must now act, initially by issuing a clear statement of condemnation. I have to ask myself what might prevent it from doing so? Could it perhaps be the fear of being accused of antisemitism? (I am of course thinking of past correspondence in the BMJ, including the Rapid Responses columns.)

I regard this accusation as being, in the vast majority of cases that have involved appropriate criticism of Israeli policy, wholly bogus and diversionary. If the IMA is refusing to speak out plainly against the participation of doctors in torture, then it is wrong and it must be called on it. If an individual Jew does something wrong it is not ‘antisemitic’ to call him to account for it, any more than it would be ‘Islamophobic’ were the person a Muslim: it is the same for groups and for nations. It is the action, or a reprehensible lack of it, that is being condemned here, not the person, group or nation.

If it is not a fear of being wrongly accused of antisemitism, I am wondering, next, what else might be responsible for the BMA’s inertia? Does the BMA still doubt the quality of the evidence? But it accepts Amnesty’s claims, and we know that several organisations have gathered evidence to the same rigorous standards, scrupulously documented and verified: organisations such as B’Tselem, Defence for Children International, Physicians for Human Rights Israel, and PCATI itself as the Jewish Chronicle story records.

We know from Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Base, ‘extraordinary renditions’ and so on just how quickly and how badly a nation’s reputation can be tarnished around the world, and how long and arduous is the process to restore it. As the evidence builds around the world increasingly from within Israel’s interrogation centres that doctors—medical doctors—are using their knowledge and expertise not to relieve pain and suffering but to increase them, and as it becomes more apparent by the day that the Israeli Medical Association is choosing to remain silent, or to justify euphemisms such as ‘moderate physical pressure’, or to feign lack of jurisdiction, then nobody should be surprised if the world comes to regard the IMA, and its president, Dr Blachar, as irredeemably compromised.

You have said, in your email to me the other day, that you do believe he is ‘in a difficult position’. Forgive me, please, when I say that I regard that as an understatement.

Apart from his elevation to so lofty a position being inappropriate in itself, what sort of example does it set around the world? We know that there are countries whose leaders permit themselves—and their agents—all manner of wickednesses on the grounds that ‘the west’ does it.

If we allow ourselves to pass over in silence the rewarding of culpable inaction, then we too are complicit.

And what if the BMA fails to speak out? Does it not also lose moral authority?

I do not know whether the BMA has called together a committee to consider the claims made against the IMA and its president, even more vital now that he has become president of the WMA. If it has not yet done so, surely it is time that the Ethics Committee, or perhaps a specially convened subcommittee, examines all the evidence.

The old adage is often true: ‘Silence lends consent’. If the BMA continues to remain silent alongside the screams of the tortured, it should not be surprised when it is accused, not falsely of antisemitism, but rightly of cowardice.

The news item, ‘Torture expert claims Israeli doctors were “complicit”‘, is below.

With kind regards

Yours sincerely

Dr Brian Robinson

BMA no. 6250567


From the Jewish Chronicle

Torture expert claims Israeli doctors were ‘complicit’
By James Martin
Created 25 Jun 2009 – 10:47am

Israel news
Israel’s secret services are operating in a “black hole” which allows torture to go unchecked, according to a leading expert on torture in Israel.

Dr Ishai Menuchin, executive director of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI), says his organisation has recorded 600 complaints about treatment received during General Security Service interrogations since 2001.

Speaking in London at the inaugural New Generation meeting of the New Israel Fund, on the eve of a new report issued by PCATI, he criticised both the Israeli legal system and the supervising doctors “who sit back and allow torture to go unchecked”.

Dr Menuchin said: “There’s no public control of the secret services. Their level of legal protection gives them almost total legal immunity. The names of interrogators are often not recorded and they are not questioned about the methods that they use.”

Later, he claimed that his organisation had evidence of “five or six” doctors who have been “complicit” in torture since 2007.

“We have sworn affidavits from Palestinians and records from hospitals that attest to injuries that were sustained during interrogations. These doctors allow torture and say nothing.”

Dr Menuchin, who supports medical boycotts of “individuals who have stood by and allowed acts of torture to take place”, also said the Israel Medical Association was culpable for “standing by and allowing its doctors to go unpunished”.

His allegations follow Dr Derek Summerfield’s recent letter to the World Medical Association (WMA) council, signed by 725 doctors worldwide, which called for Israel’s Dr Yoram Blachar to stand down as WMA’s president. The letter claimed that under Dr Blachar “the Israel Medical Association made a decision to turn a blind eye to torture in Israel and the institutionalised involvement of doctors.”

But Dr Blachar insisted that the information came only from Palestinians and that there was “no outside corroboration from anyone else”.

The new PCATI report says that, against Israeli law, a variety of agencies, including the army, shackle detainees in painful ways that amount to torture. Written by lawyer Samah Elkhatib Ayoub, the report is timed to coincide with today’s UN International Day in Support of Torture Victims.

The report points to improvements in practices and procedures concerning the shackling of detainees when they are brought for medical treatment, following actions taken by the Public Committee and Physicians for Human Rights – Israel.

But it notes: “Security detainees do not benefit from these improvements. Rather they continue to receive medical treatment in hospitals while they are shackled, uniformly, with no consideration of the threat they may or may not present.”

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