First, Do No Harm

Yoram Blachar is president of the Israel Medical Association, a pediatric nephrologist with a quiet manner who practices at the Kaplan Hospital in Rehovot. In 2007, he beat out two other candidates to become president of the World Medical Association, an umbrella organization representing 9 million physicians in 84 countries with a mandate to define and promote doctors’ ethical and behavioral codes.

Given the hostility to Israeli academics and other professionals in some quarters, Blachar’s election was greeted with joy and pride by many Jewish physicians worldwide. “His election is a great happiness after all battles against the threat of boycott,” Hava Bugajer of Austria wrote to the IMA.

Alas, the threat isn’t over.

More than 700 doctors from 43 countries have written a letter to the WMA protesting Blachar’s presidency on the grounds that he willfully ignored alleged involvement of Israeli physicians in the torture of Palestinian prisoners. “We believe that his presidency makes a mockery of the principles on which the WMA was founded in 1947, which was as a response to egregious abuses by German and Japanese doctors in World War Two,” the letter says.

Dissect that sentence for a moment. By raising the memory of Nazi medical abuses, it implicitly creates a link between those horrors — outrageous torture and medical experiments performed directly on countless concentration camp inmates — and the IMA’s alleged transgressions. That cynical manipulation characterizes the broader campaign against Blachar.

Not that there isn’t a real underlying issue here. There is. Two reputable human rights organizations in Israel — the Public Committee Against Torture and Physicians for Human Rights — have criticized the IMA for not fully investigating specific cases in which several Palestinian detainees reported being tortured during their interrogations or while they were undergoing medical examinations. The organizations believe that some doctors “witnessed signs of torture,” which, if true, would surely violate the ethical codes that the IMA pledges to uphold.

The IMA, however, has insisted it investigated these charges “to the best of our abilities” and could find no wrongdoing among the physicians it located.

From this distance, we are not able to judge whether the human rights groups are overreaching or the IMA is not being forthcoming. Let the dialogue over this continue.

But to throw out Yoram Blachar’s election over these allegations is grossly unfair and hypocritical. It smacks of guilt by association. Imagine if the president of the American Medical Association were held responsible for every alleged misdeed perpetrated by American physicians. Leadership under those circumstances is impossible.

Those protesting Blachar’s election allege other faults, notably a phrase he used in a 1997 letter published in a British medical journal, in which he noted that “moderate physical pressure” was legal at that time, provided it is conducted under international standards. (The Israeli Supreme Court ruled it illegal two years later.) Blachar’s critics turned that observation into an endorsement and continue to falsely tar him as someone who condones torture.

Here, instead, is how Blachar describes himself, in an e-mail to the Forward: “It must be understood that my position as well as the position of the leadership of the IMA is firmly and unequivocally against torture of any kind and any nature, and this position was conveyed in numerous occasions to the prison, military and security services. Moreover, whenever we are aware of problems of Palestinians patients in need of passage to health institutions in Israel, we do our best to help, more than once successfully.”

On the agenda of the WMA is an upcoming discussion of the health considerations of climate change, a lobbying effort on behalf of three physicians who have been detained by the Sri Lankan government and a plea for physicians to be granted access to patients, medical facilities and equipment in Gaza. Then there was a resolution passed at a meeting in May — in Tel Aviv — in which the WMA strongly reminded its members “that they are prohibited from participating in or even being present during the practice of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading procedures.”

Clearly, the WMA under Blachar’s leadership is not backing away from promoting the strongest ethical behavior among physicians. Instead of shaming a good doctor, the protesters ought to follow the dictum: Physician, heal thyself.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.
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First, Do No Harm

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