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The Met is erasing the Sackler name. Tel Aviv University’s medical school should be next

In a joint statement, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Sackler family today announced that the museum will no longer bear the name of the disgraced pharmaceutical billionaires who helped fuel the opioid crisis for financial gain.

Yemach shemo, as we say in Jewish tradition — may their name, and all the pain that they’ve caused, be erased.

Removing the name of the family behind Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, from cultural and research institutions is an important step toward accountability — one already taken by Tufts University, the Louvre and the Tate Modern in recent years as knowledge of the Sackler family’s culpability in the epidemic grew. Considering that the Sacklers individually have avoided legal liability, removing their name from buildings their blood money has helped fund ensures that their fortunes cannot wash away their crimes.

Will the notable outlier, Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine, be next?

Without justice from the legal system, private accountability for the Sackler family is the only way forward. The distinguished Israeli institution should be the next in line to deliver it.

The Sacklers created OxyContin as a “bridge” to be used long term by both cancer patients and those suffering from moderate to chronic pain. As early as 1999, Purdue Pharma received reports that OxyContin’s potency had a high potential for abuse — and ignored them. Instead, the company launched a massive marketing push, conducting more than 40 pain-management conferences between 1996-2001 with over 5,000 doctors, nurses and pharmacists attending. Then-president Richard Sackler even accompanied pharmaceutical sales reps on their visits, demanding a “blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition.” More than 100,000 Americans were buried instead.

The Sacklers have successfully dodged real legal consequences. On Sept. 1, 2021, a bankruptcy judge in White Plains, New York handed the Sacklers sweeping immunity from further prosecution. The now-bankrupt Purdue Pharma company shouldered the bulk of punitive damages, and individual members of the Sackler family who directly perpetuated the opioid epidemic cannot be held liable in the future. The Sacklers’ wealth also did not take a punitive hit — it is estimated to be $11 billion.

Nonetheless, Tel Aviv University officials continue to demur on removing the name. Despite dozens of faculty and researchers pressuring the school directly, and the Israel Medical Association’s Ethics Board publicly requesting its removal, university officials continue to state that they are waiting for judicial rulings before making a decision, despite the fact that the rulings have already come down.

In recent months, I spoke with nearly a dozen current and former med students at Sackler who unanimously expressed discomfort with the Sackler name — off the record. All of those I interviewed feared activism on this matter would affect their future placement in residencies, or possibly prejudice professors against them for being “difficult.”

Several med school students had read Patrick Radden Keefe’s groundbreaking book on the Sackler’s “Empire of Pain,” and their outrage was palpable, even as they pressed me to confirm they were anonymous. One of them spoke animatedly about how the removal of the Sackler name had a moral precedent: the discontinuation of medical eponyms that had come from, or been associated with, Nazi human experimentation.

Names carry a tremendous amount of spiritual significance in Jewish life and thought. Each year at Rosh Hashanah, we pray for our own name to be written in the Book of Life for another year. New names are given to mark a spiritual transformation — Avram becomes Avraham, Jacob becomes Israel. Yemach shemo is a phrase we use when speaking of enemies of the Jewish people to signify their crimes were so awful that history should forget their name — a serious consequence Jews don’t invoke lightly. The Sacklers deserve to have their name removed, erased from public view, in light of the immense suffering they have caused.

In late 2020, the dean of Sackler Medical School Professor Ehud Grossman wrote in an email to a concerned faculty member that: “Any public involvement on the matter, and it does not matter what is done in the end, will greatly harm the university.” [emphasis mine]

The same year that he sent that email, 69,710 people died from an opioid overdose in the United States, leaving untold numbers of friends and family in grief.

I’m sure that they would tell Professor Grossman, and Tel Aviv University, that not only does public involvement matter, but it is a matter of life and death.

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