Hospitals are criticised for yielding to pressure over human rights lecture

November 18, 2009
Richard Kuper
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bmjClare Dyer, British Medical Journal 17 November 2009

See also, the Jewish Chronicle report dated 29 October Zionists stop medical talk after campaign

Two hospitals in northwest England have been criticised for cancelling lectures on human rights after a campaign by a Zionist organisation to stop them taking place. The lectures were due to be given by a speaker from the Israeli charity Physicians for Human Rights-Israel.

The Zionist Central Council of Greater Manchester posted on its website an “urgent call to stop anti-Israel meeting at Manchester Royal Infirmary and Fairfield Hospital.”

A talk entitled “The right to health in a conflict zone” by Miri Weingarten, advocacy director for Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, was cancelled four hours before it was due to start on 22 October at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, but people who turned up to hear it were diverted to an alternative venue at Manchester University where the talk took place.

A spokesperson for the Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which includes Manchester Royal Infirmary, said it had cancelled the meeting “for safety and security reasons.”

Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS Trust was also asked to stop Ms Weingarten, described by the Zionist Central Council as “anti-Israeli,” from speaking at Fairfield General Hospital in Bury, but the trust’s chief executive, John Saxby, decided to let the event, on 22 October, go ahead.

However, a lecture by Ms Weingarten at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool entitled “Children’s health rights: the case of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory,” was cancelled. The Zionist Central Council said it had nothing to do with any protest against that talk, which it said was organised by “a Liverpool pro-Israel group.”

Ms Weingarten said: “I was quite shocked by the behaviour of the ZCC [Zionist Central Council], the silencing of debate. But I was even more disappointed by the hospitals: the fact that they allow external pressure of this kind to affect what happens in hospitals.”

Alder Hey denied it was influenced by any outside pressure. Its chief executive, Louise Shepherd, said that shortly before Ms Weingarten was due to speak on 23 October “it came to our attention that what was intended as a private NHS meeting about the health issues of some very disadvantaged children had in fact become public knowledge and was being trailed on various websites as a political issue.”

She said, “This was augmented by accompanying display boards which arrived earlier that week and which contained explicit political content.”

She said that Alder Hey was “apolitical” and had therefore decided to cancel the meeting.

The Jewish Chronicle criticised the Zionist Central Council for attempting to stifle free speech rather than attending the lectures and challenging the speaker. Its editorial concluded: “The sound of shot feet resonates throughout north-west England” (Jewish Chronicle, 30 Oct, p 30).

Karen Solomon of the Zionist Central Council said, “Miri Weingarten is known in Israeli circles as anti-Israel. Originally we had no intention of stopping the meeting, but we believe that anything political should not be held on NHS premises.”

Asad Khan, a consultant physician at Fairfield General Hospital and organiser of Ms Weingarten’s lecture tour, said, “The whole idea that PHRI [Physicians for Human Rights-Israel] is antisemitic or even anti-Israel is ludicrous, given that the organisation is overwhelmingly comprised of Jewish Israelis, of whom Miri is one. This was a medical meeting by invitation only in a hospital and was no business of the general public.”

He added that the organisers included Medsin and Medact, “which are nationally respected networks of medical students and doctors concerned about global health inequalities.”

Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b4901

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