It’s been more than a decade since British psychiatrist Derek Summerfield called for a medical academic boycott of Israel. Growing up in South Africa during apartheid, the child of a Zimbabwean Afrikana mother and British father, he knows all too well what racial discrimination and segregation means. He lived it.
Even before visiting the Palestinian territories towards the end of the first Intifada (1987-1992), where he saw for himself Israel’s systematic and institutionalised torture of Palestinians, Summerfield “had always been angry at Israel”.
“Watching the behaviour of young Israeli soldiers towards an elderly Palestinian man on my first day in Jerusalem at a checkpoint felt very familiar,” he says. “I’d seen this in South Africa where I grew up.”
Summerfield has spent the last 16 years exposing Israeli war crimes and publishing scathing critiques in Britain’s leading medical journals on the complicity of Israeli doctors. Today, the name of this honorary senior lecturer at London’s Institute of Psychiatry and teaching associate at the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, stands out in the much talked about British academic boycott of Israeli universities. Because he’s a doctor, his approach and activism have been focussed on the medical aspect of the boycott campaign where he has been raising compelling questions on the ethical and moral responsibility of the medical profession. He’s public enemy number one for Jewish pressure groups in the UK, and for the Israeli Medical Association (IMA), because he poses the right questions.
“I’ve always been a doctor interested in human rights and wider questions and you could say that doctors have as much a responsibility to speak out about the social and political causes of distress and disease as they have to treat the individual patients,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly during a recent two-day visit to Cairo. Summerfield had been invited to give the annual Okasha lecture, an event organised by leading Egyptian psychiatrists Ahmed Okasha, Farouk Lotaief and Mohamed Ghanem. He chose to speak about human rights and the responsibility of the medical profession.
Summerfield’s interest in the Palestinian question goes back a long time. While working for the London-based Medical Foundation for Victims of Torture in the early 1990s he met many Palestinian patients who had been tortured by Israeli soldiers. And during his first visit to the occupied Palestinian territories it became clear to him that Israel had long ago adopted torture “as state policy”. Back then, he says, Gaza was “in a bad state though not remotely as bad as it is now”.
Summerfield then became involved with the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme.
“I was in Gaza on the day the so-called peace process was signed in Oslo in August 1993 and it was very interesting because most of the people I knew there were incredibly happy. They thought it was the end of it all. But a minority of Palestinians said — and they turned out to be right — this wasn’t a deal and were pessimistic and that Yasser Arafat didn’t know what he was signing.”
What he saw — “the most awful crime has been played out down there by a colonial power that considered itself part of Europe. They were grabbing Palestinians’ land and torturing them in ways that were reminiscent of South Africa but, as it turns out, far, far worse than South Africa” — compelled him to become active in the Palestinian question.
Having witnessed the first and second Intifadas, Summerfield declares that the behaviour of the Israeli occupation in the latter was “much more openly brutal and the major powers didn’t say anything.”
“There was a time” he says, “when before they went on a raid the Israeli defence board used to discuss how it would look in Europe and the US. They don’t bother with that any more. So clearly torture was a major question there.”
According to Summerfield, half the population in Gaza have “basically spent some time in [Israeli] detention, some of them for years.” The proportion of the Gazan adult male population interrogated and tortured, he adds, is probably higher than any population in the world.
The more he saw the more determined Summerfield became. He started publishing pieces quoting human rights reports, Amnesty International, the International Committee of the Red Cross and UN committees, “all of which pointed to consistent torture as state policy in Israel and the appalling use of indiscriminate fire power against children who throw stones”. Twenty five per cent of the deaths in the first Intifada were children — approximately 400 — which “looks mild” compared to the second Intifada. Since 2000 Israeli soldiers have killed 1,000 children. Most of them, he notes, have been killed “close-range by snipers: a single bullet to the head or neck”. It is appalling, he says, how the Israeli medical profession remains “completely silent” about the health and human rights consequences of the occupation.
This gradually led to a conflict with the IMA, the official body that is supposed to give ethical guidance to young doctors and ensure that Israel meets international standards, the benchmark of which is the Declaration of Tokyo of the World Medical Association, outlining how doctors should behave. Summerfield explains: “They should not condone or be present during torture and they should speak out if they come across it.”
It is ironic, he sighs, that the World Medical Association was born after World War II precisely because of what German doctors had done to Jewish prisoners. “The Israeli Medical Association is a signatory to these declarations yet it became clear that it was in complete complicity in the war crimes committed by the Israeli state.”
The articles he published in the world’s oldest and most prestigious medical journals — The Lancet and the British Medical Journal ( BMJ ) — US medical journals refuse to publish on Palestinian suffering, he says — exposing this complicity placed him in direct conflict with the IMA.
His most controversial article, “Palestine: the assault on health and war crimes” which appeared in the BMJ in 2004, stated that the Israeli army has killed “more unarmed Palestinian civilians since September 2000 than the number of people who died on 11 September 2001.”
“I don’t cite my opinion. I quote international rights groups and UN bodies. The facts are there already,” says Summerfield. He simply puts them together and then struggles to have them published.
Many doctors are still afraid that they will be called anti-Semitic if they criticise Israel. Not Summerfield.
“I’m called that all the time. It doesn’t inhibit me. If anything, it encourages me because it means I’m getting through to them. So they make a fight but the point about a fight is that it creates more publicity and its conscientising. It wakes up people one way or the other. And part of the story here is: when is the doctor a doctor? That is to say it’s a humanitarian profession, supposedly it has a moral authority in a society, healing people regardless of politics. And when is a doctor a citizen? This is another matter altogether and what I’ve discovered is that at the end of the day Israeli doctors have made it clear, their loyalty is to Israeli citizenship and if Israel says they must torture Palestinians and shoot children in the street, then those doctors will do their best to cover it up or make it sound OK, to put a nice face on it. They’re putting a nice face on the occupation.”
“Evidence” of the involvement of Israeli doctors, he insists, is “overwhelming in the everyday torture of Palestinians” which leads him to conclude that the IMA is in fact “an arm of the security state”.
But is not Israel an exception in that it is the only state in the world where the entire adult population are army reservists? It is a completely militarised society.
“Exactly,” snaps Summerfield, “which makes the question ‘are you a citizen or a doctor?’ more poignant.”
And doesn’t that make Israeli apartheid by default?
In 1999 the IMA received a delegation from the human rights organisation Summerfield was working for which was concerned about torture. “The head of the IMA, who is in charge of medical ethics, knows that doctors have a duty to speak out against torture but he said to them: ‘Come on, what’s a couple of broken fingers when you interrogate a Palestinian man for the information we can get?'”
Summerfield’s immediate reaction was to publish the remark and other incidents of systematic torture of the Palestinians. His 2004 BMJ article provoked the Jewish establishment in the UK which not only attempted to intimidate him, but also the journal’s editors who received thousands of hostile e-mails and threats. Summerfield’s response was to fight harder, eventually leading him to the academic boycott campaign.
Summerfield was in Ramallah when the UK Union of University Lecturers passed a motion to boycott Israeli universities in 2006.
“Just the symbolism of it was so important,” he says. “These are academics so they have a certain public status.”
But the motion was short-lived as the “outraged” and powerful pro-Israel Jewish establishment in the UK managed to pressure on the union’s president. A second motion defeated the boycott decision.
A year later, on 30 May 2007, UK university lecturers voted to force their union into a year- long debate over boycotting work with Israeli universities. Delegates voted 158 to 99 to recommend boycotts in protest at Israel’s “40-year occupation” of Palestinian land and to condemn the “complicity” of Israeli academics.
Says Summerfield: “Of course it’s difficult to run it and there are tremendous pressures but we’re optimistic.” His group — the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, a UK-based organisation whose mission is to support Palestinian universities and oppose illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands — is sparing no effort in its attempts to influence British public opinion and politicians to see and react to Tel Aviv’s breaches of international conventions on human rights and refusal to accept UN resolutions or rulings of the International Court of Justice and, just as important, acknowledge Israel’s persistent suppression of Palestinian academic freedom.
“Boycott”, he argues, “brings out what’s happening. And the point is the collusion of the academic establishment in Israel. Not one Israeli university protested when Palestinian universities were shut. Berzeit University was shut for three years at one point. Students are shot at check points, they can’t get to lectures, doctors can’t get to see patients. Nothing. Some Israeli universities are now founded on Palestinian land, stolen land. Academia, especially medical academia, is in complete collusion with the colonial expansionist state.”
Although his group is in need of more support, Summerfield says they have managed to create a network of professionals and others around the world. Last year they published a letter in The Guardian signed by 130 British doctors calling for a boycott of the IMA. And their campaigning isn’t just on the political level. “We try to get aid in to Gaza, teach in universities in Palestine and we give Palestinian students places to study in Britain.”
It is striking, says Summerfield, how Israeli doctors react to him. “An Israeli doctor will applaud me and buy me a drink if I write about Sudan, Guatemala or China. If I were to cross out Israel and put Sudan, that would be great. But because I say it’s Israel they say to me you’re a pro terrorist propagandist or they call me Nazi. In psychology we say we have many rooms in our head and one has to ask which one are you in and speaking from? In some of our rooms we don’t behave the same. The fact is that I’ve been consistently bold on Israel and they tell me there must be some weird reason why I am an anti- Semite.”
“Support for Israel is embedded in Western systems without doubt. The US and the UK regard Israel as a European country. Israel continues to play the Holocaust story and anti- Semitism as a way of blocking the truth.”
“It’s a much harder struggle than the struggle against apartheid. So none of us fools ourselves. But I think we’ve had some modest effects and I think they continue. Israel, certainly, has taken them extremely seriously. Every time an Israeli cabinet minister comes to London the first thing he wants to talk about is the boycott. What they fear is the rhetorical power that these things echo. That’s what they’re afraid of.”
What would be an effective measure?
“Ultimately, what would be effective would be not buying Israeli goods and trying to get companies to take their investments out of Israeli- linked companies.”
In 2004 the US Presbyterian church, along with some other churches, discussed selective divestiture in companies operating in Israel, taking their money out of companies like Caterpillar tractors which were involved in demolishing Palestinian houses. “There’s a growing tide,” believes Summerfield, though he concedes that, “of course its terribly slow and of course most people are not political.”
“Clearly we have to influence the politicians… but out of 550 MPs in Britain more than 200 were drawn in as Friends of Israel and their concern is to block these things, to hide it. It is extraordinary how strong the lobby is.”
Yet Israeli academics and doctors “are starting to feel more uncomfortable” than they used to be in the face of changing public opinion.
Summerfield often challenges Jewish doctors by posing a moral question to them: “Do you realise you have more power to do good in the world if three or four Jewish professors who have connections with the IMA say that involvement of Israeli doctors in interrogation rooms has to stop. The torture will have to stop because then Shabak (the General Security Services) wouldn’t be able to proceed in their usual way. I tell them that not doing this is moral corruption.”
All this, a full time job (he is one of Britain’s most eminent psychiatrists), his research and his family (he has a 12-year-old daughter), how does Summerfield make the time?
And does he feel his efforts receive enough support from the Arab world, where the notion of an academic boycott of Israeli universities is barely addressed? Summerfield smiles.
“Here in Egypt, for example, torture is endemic. I’m using Israel-Palestine as my case example, but the wider question is whether we should expect higher standards from doctors and accountants or bankers and journalists in the Arab world and elsewhere. That’s the point.”
By Interview by Amira Howeidy © Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly.
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