Contrary to reports, Lancet not retracting controversial letter to people of Gaza

logo_lancetDespite the claims of a widely circulated news report today, The Lancet has no plans to retract a controversial open letter to the people of Gaza that has drawn criticism since being published in August.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) reported this morning:

The editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, which ran an open letter accusing Israel of a “massacre” in Gaza, said on a visit to Israel that he will publish a retraction.

Dr. Richard Horton made a statement Oct. 2 during Grand Rounds at the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, which he also visited earlier in the week.

That surprised us, since Lancet editor Richard Horton has been steadfastly defending the letter, saying as recently as last week that it would not be retracted. We checked with him, and by email, he told Retraction Watch:

…[N]o plans to, and indeed no grounds on which to, retract.


Indeed, no retraction. My personal view is that you don’t retract things you don’t like. Instead, you work to build something more positive.

The JTA, it appears, got it wrong. They have since removed the reference to the retraction, although the change is not noted anywhere on the piece. The first paragraph of the piece now now reads:

The editor of The Lancet said in Israel that he “deeply regrets” the divisiveness caused by the open letter published in the British medical journal accusing Israel of a “massacre” in Gaza.

We’ve transcribed the part of Grand Rounds in which Horton addressed the issue. Retraction is not mentioned:

I want to thank you, Professor Skorecki and Professor Beyar, for your courage, your openness, and your generosity of spirit in inviting me here in such circumstances. I want to thank all of those I have met this week, for their kindness, for their encouragement, and for their insight. I’ve learned a great deal during the past three days. RAMBAM as a model for partnership between Jews and Arabs. RAMBAM as a center offering an open hand to the people of Palestine, and RAMBAM as a place with a unique vision for a peaceful, productive, and diverse future among peoples. RAMBAM-ism, as somebody put it to me this week. Today is an opportunity for me, and I believe for us together. But before I talk about that opportunity I need to very honestly set the record straight with you.

First, I deeply, deeply regret the completely unnecessary polarization that publication of the letter by Paola Manduca caused, irrespective of our intentions, which I am very happy to discuss. This outcome was definitely not my intention.

Second, and contrary to some incomplete accounts of a conversation with a journalist I had recently, I was personally horrified at the offensive video that was forwarded by two of the authors of that letter. The world-view expressed in that video is abhorrent and must be condemned and I condemn it.


I have made that view, my view, very clear directly to those two individuals.

Third, I will be publishing what I just said in the Lancet next week.


Let me add, the Lancet is, always was, and under my leadership always will be 100% open, indeed more than that welcoming, of research and work submitted to us by colleagues and friends from Israel.


I need to say – I need to say – that I have received, personally these last two months some, I can only describe them as vile accusations about me, about my views concerning this country and its people.

Let me make it absolutely clear to you. Anyone who makes those claims simply does not know me, does not know anything about my life, my family, or my values. For reasons I find actually hard to explain or understand myself, I have a special feeling for this land, on which Israel and Palestine and the wider Arab world and their peoples live.

Here’s the entire video:


24 thoughts on “Contrary to reports, Lancet not retracting controversial letter to people of Gaza”

  1. Richard Horton appears to be confusing two issues: personal pride and opinion, and scientific prose. Nobody is, or wants to, question Horton’s “… life, … family, or … values”. The only thing that the scientific community is stating is that a letter published in his journal that assumes a radical politicized opinion has no place in the scientific literature. Whether Israel is or isn’t guilty of a “massacre” in Gaza is certainly an important issue, and well worth a debate, but not one that should be discussed, or even opined, in a scientific journal, even less one with the reputation that The Lancet has. With a 2013 Impact Factor of 39.207, one would think that Prof. Horton would look beyond his personal defense and look towards the future of the scientific reputation of this journal simply because he may be sacrificing it simply to stand up to his personal beliefs, which is a noble character, but simply out of place.

    It is surprising (or is it?) that Elsevier has not stepped in to at least issue an immediate expression of concern. The piece should be retracted, and can easily be published in many non-scientific publishing outlets, I believe. I also think that Horton has erred when he states: “My personal view is that you don’t retract things you don’t like.” True, but this is not about what X, Y or Z like or don’t like. It is about the appropriateness of the theme. So, the topic can even cause controversies in the world of academics, e.g. [1], but I believe that the letter should be retracted. One should never forget the soul searching that took place in The Lancet back in 2005-2007, when the controversy surrounding the support of a medical journal that is supposed to “save lives through research” was being supported by a company, Reed-Elsevier (Elsevier’s parent company) that was supporting the profitable weapon’s industry [2]. History never forgets, nor should we allow the powers that be to allow it to be forgotten.


  2. Maybe five hours from now, and for the 25 hours afterwards, he should start reflecting on how a scientific journal should not be used for making political, and what proved to be ultimately misleading, statements.

    1. its actually a medical journal, and while the story has a political angle this is also a human catastrophe. It really does not matter who is instigating this state-organized slaughter, it is also a clinical and humanatarian issue as well.

      1. Bill, exactly. No-one is denying or downplaying the clinical and humanitarian issues. So, as a scientist (Horton) and as a scientific journal (The Lancet), both should focus EXCLUSIVELY on science. If you pepper the message with politically or radically charged words, it moves the message from the central axis. Claiming a legal issue, i.e., the stated massacre, is absolutely unrelated to science. Had the letter focused on the suffering, on the physical, or functional state of the clinics, or on the physical or psychological state of those who were victims, then yes, sure that would be acceptable. But the use of the word “massacre” is what ultimately breached the scientific parameters. In a similar analogy, there are borders between what can be said, or not, by the Church, and that is what defines the line between State and Church. The same invisible lines exist in science. I believe that the letter crossed that line, and that The Lancet (and Horton) overlooked that line.

  3. Could you please time-stamp the various statements (date and hour / time-zone)? As far as I know, Dr Horton refused to condemn or retract the open letter right up to his visit with Ramban – perhaps even up to the last day (25 September).

    I can understand the point about not literally “retracting” – but commenting, condemning, showing concern – and most of all doing something pro-active to create a better future would be in order.

    For example, comments and concern could be added to the original posting on the website.

    And the video of Horton’s “turn-around” speech could be prominently referred to.

    PS – I’m very sorry that people who were upset by the open letter were nasty and hateful. How much more hope we could have if everyone tried to be civil. As an example, see – which I think may have been an important first step towards making the Ramban visit happen.

    1. “You should have the intellectual courage to admit your affinity for a quite different document, the Hamas Covenant”.

      Civil or nasty? You be the judge…

      1. Yes, there were some nasty remarks in Dr Pick’s letters – and certainly the one you quote is not only nasty but downright stupid. What I am saying, however, is that on the whole, Dr Pick and the RAMBAM people acted constructively and with respect. Quite amazing, I think, when you consider how much libel against Israel is flying around, and how much Dr Horton apparently “ate raw” as we say in Danish.

  4. This was a letter not an editorial. It represented the informed view of a group of medical professionals among The Lancet’s readership on a situation where they were largely prevented or discouraged from contributing their skills in a humanitarian crisis. The Lancet was founded as a reformist publication known for its campaigns and concern for world health.Why should Mr Horton, the editor, care too much what mean-spirited critics say?

    1. Basically a good point, Woody – perhaps it was fine that Dr Horton did not react at the time, although a mention of concern would have been in order because the letter was so outrageous.

      But in all events, it turned out to be good that the letter was published so that the debate could well up. It looks as if the polarization was not at all unnecessary!

      Dr Horton has now learned first-hand that what may look like an honest, anguished protest – possibly filled with lies or distortions – hooks too easily into vicious hatred when the topic is Israel.

      The whole affair also means that Dr Horton got acquainted with aspects of Israel and its way of caring for victims that he hadn’t realized existed – possibly because of the propaganda that he apparently had just been accepting as truth.

      And perhaps in future, if caring medical professionals come forward in a truly caring and cooperative way, they will no longer be prevented or discouraged from contributing. In any event, I hope Dr Horton makes good on his promises of building cooperation with Rambam.

  5. Can anyone tell me: If ‘Operation Protective Edge’ WASN’T a massacre, then what was it?

    Over 200.000 dead, including 540 children; over 11.000 wounded, including 3.000 children; over 100.000 made homeless; schools, hospitals, ambulances, UN safe houses, care homes for the elderly & disabled deliberately targeted & destroyed – (etc ad nauseum). Against 73 Israelis killed (mainly IDF) – should leave no one in any doubt as to who is the aggressor.

    1. 200,000 dead? You have gotten your facts wrong. Also, interesting that you only point to fairly biased sources. Try a more impartial one, like, and you might see more interesting data.

      1. MEMRI?! You mean the people that pretend to understand Arabic and then act all indignant when they’re pulled up on it? I’m amazed someone on retractionwatch would suggest MEMRI as “impartial”. Truly flabbergasted.

  6. All and every Academic discipline faces a backlash whenever it criticises Israel!
    It is the very same in other fields-Music/Film/ Sport etc.!

    Immediately any person questions the actions of Israel in the 47 years of military occupation of Palestinian land-The ‘Israel can do no wrong’ brigade springs into action-launching its usual anti-Semitism weapon!

    Everyone is challenged to ignore the suffering of the Palestinian people and to obfuscate about the obvious crimes of Israel or to ‘stand above and beyond politics’!

    Just what the Zionist Israeli propagandists would like!

    It would seem that now- because of the Lancet –it is the Medical Professions’ turn to come under attack for daring to focus on the Israeli Occupation of Palestine

    This Israeli military control of Palestine is not a recent occupation!-But one that has continued for 47 years has been appallingly brutal by any standards!

    Many Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank for resisting Israeli control.

    Add to this the bloodshed that killed 2200 Palestinian people-in the Israeli prison that is Gaza-following on from a previous 1400 killed there in 2008/9

    If the Israelis were a serious partner for peace, then they would never establish Israeli civilian ‘settlements’ on Palestinian West Bank land!

    The World’s Medical profession and therefore the Lancet should be concerned with every facet of human wellbeing! From modern Surgical Technology through Palliative care and beyond to include any Human rights abuses that infringe on people living a heathy life!

    [‘With regard to healing the sick, I will devise and order for them the best diet, according to my judgement and means; and I will take care that they suffer no hurt or damage.’- Hippocratic Oath]

    1. It is funny that all comments that I read concerning Israel never mention the start of the conflict. It is very easy to start from the point that suite you, but not to quote/bring the truth/real issue/facts.
      As to remind all of you. Israel was established following the resolution of the UN general assembly. This resolution was following another 3 ones: God gave Israel to Abraham. the British Lord Balfour promised Israel to Prof. Weizman and the Picot commitee recommended it to the UN. In this night the Arabs declare war on Israel they failed, but half of jerusalem remained with them. Many Arabs escaped from Israel. They became refugees. This is the start of the refugee problem. The ones that stayed in Israel got full rights. They live, work, buy, sell, vote. They have their members in the Israeli Knesset. The west bank was under the rule of Jordan. The Jordanian never claimed it back, so there is no dispute about te West Bank as the palestinians never ruled this place. No, every article that criticised Israel never mentioned these important facts. Everyone start from the point that Israel Killed/bombed/ruind Etc. They never mention that Israel was under severe attacks, from Gaza. for 14 long years without answering. Nobody say that Israel evacuared Gaza. Nobody say that Gaza, even during the war, supplied with water, power, food, medicine and more from Israel. Nobody recognize the hospitalization of high rank Palestinians and/or their families in Israeli hospitals.
      Ok. You can blame Israel for being strong. You can blame Israel for the destruction of Gaza. But you must also oint out that Hamas gaza violated 13 Cease fire agreements. Because these are the Facts. If they were not, Israel would have stop bombing Gaza much earlier.
      Your preioroties on Israel is that you have crowd that read everything that you write and accept it as God’s words. They never make a cross check to make sure its accuracy.
      This is not the way Israel behave. we say the truth, all of it and nothing but the truth.

    1. The 200.000 is accurate enough. Of course, not in Gaza but in Syria. Does the Lancet care more about Gazans than about those living in Syria or ISISland now?

  7. On the issue of the Lancet, I wish to point out a very tiny sentence that has been slipped into the “ethics/authorship” web-page [1] by Elsevier as it moulds and remoulds its “ethics” policies. Under “Changes to authorship”, Elsevier now states “This policy concerns the addition, deletion, or rearrangement of author names in the authorship of accepted manuscripts. Note that The Lancet, Cell, and journals published by Elsevier on behalf of learned societies may have different policies.” [1]. I simply cannot understand how Elsevier, a COPE member, can allow different journals to have different policies, and thus, different “ethics of authorship”. I also cannot understand how COPE would agree with Elsevier’s inconsistencies in “ethics” and “authorship” policies. In my opinion, these constant adjustments to the “ethics” and “authorship” definitions without timely forewarning to the scientific cmmunity is a very dangerous precedent. As is quite obvious, most scientists are not monitoring the evolution of Elsevier’s ethics and authorship definitions. But I am, because this issue affects us all.

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