“It could be too upsetting for some people,” the conference organizer said, explaining why a slide depicting military violence in Gaza was being cut.
I had been invited to deliver my keynote speech entitled “Migration, Trauma, and Health” at a hybrid health equity themed conference held at the end of October. My slide had three images — one of an orange fireball illuminating the sky in Iraq as the US-led forces dropped bombs during the Iraq War in 2003; a recent one of an orange-lit sky in Gaza, as Israel dropped bombs; and a third of an ambulance in Gaza destroyed from a bombing. I included the picture of Iraq to draw parallels from my personal experiences during the war in Iraq to what is currently happening in Gaza. My goal was to display the uncontroversial fact that the devastation in Gaza today will have a significant impact on the trauma and health of Gazan civilians for decades to come.
“You can acknowledge what’s happening,” the organizer told me when I pushed back about not bringing up Gaza given its immediate relevance to my keynote, “but don’t blame anyone.”
The conference organizer cut the slide. I delivered the speech to nearly 1,000 physicians and researchers. Then, I cried.
That day, the number of Palestinian children killed by Israeli attacks on Gaza had risen to over 3,000, more than the annual death toll for children in all wars since 2019. The child death toll is now 5,000, 40 percent of the total deaths. The world has since borne witness to heart-wrenching pictures and videos of newborns crying for survival, pulled prematurely from their incubators due to a lack of fuel from Israel’s blockade. Not only have ambulances been bombed but also hospitals, including children’s hospitals. The largest hospital in Gaza has been raided and now includes a mass grave. Patients are dying due to energy shortages and lack of supplies.
I cried because the response of the conference organizer signaled that the fault lay in the image I wanted to show and the response it could cause, rather than in what they revealed — a humanitarian catastrophe that has led independent, neutral, and impartial organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, to repeatedly call for a cease-fire to end human suffering.
In the days that followed, I thought about how my colleagues at the conference had no idea that the slide was removed from my presentation. They moved on to the next panel, to the next day, not being disturbed by an extra reminder of the apocalyptic-level devastation occurring in some foreign land, far, far away from the comforts of the four-star hotel where the conference was being held.
I am far from alone among academics, scholars, and writers who have been censored. Michael Eisen, a computational biologist and Jewish American with Israeli family was fired as editor of eLife, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, for endorsing a satirical article in the Onion. Viet Thanh Nguyen — son of Vietnamese refugees, professor, author, and MacArthur “genius” — had a talk canceled after he signed an open letter demanding an “end to the violence and destruction in Palestine.” Even professors in Israel have been censored. Many more simply slink into the darkness.
As a child, I was moved by the story of Galileo Galilei, the Italian astronomer who argued that Earth and other planets revolve around the sun. He was put on trial by the Catholic Church, convicted of heresy, and forced to recant his work. The daughter of scientists myself, I developed an irrevocable burning to search for and tell scientific truths. I dreamed of being like Galileo. I dedicated my career to research and advancing health justice. But at this conference, more than three decades after these childhood ruminations, I faced scientists who considered me one of them, and I thought of Galileo standing trial. My dream felt like it had transformed into a nightmare.
I am a physician, a scientist, a Muslim American, a mother saying what I know to be true: Violence, in war or in the home, is detrimental to health. What is happening in Gaza is an embodiment of such violence at a systemic level. The damage is well beyond the death toll: It will reverberate in the living for decades. The children who survive will be traumatized forever, many without any surviving family to buffer the impact of the trauma. Their trauma will be cumulative, compounded by deprivation and the threat of starvation; 95 percent of people in Gaza lack access to clean drinking water. Doctors are using their phone flashlights because generators have run out of fuel. They are using dishwashing liquid to clean wounds and sewing needles to sew them up.
To stop this harm to the health of an entire population, the Israeli bombing and blockade of Gaza must stop. Hospitals and ambulances must be protected.
And, we must not tolerate a “Palestine exception” to free speech and academic discourse, as I signed in a letter from Harvard faculty to our university president. We can do this while simultaneously opposing the violence that Hamas has inflicted.
In my keynote speech, I shared the words of anthropologist and physician-humanitarian Paul Farmer: “If access to health care is considered a human right, who is considered human enough to have that right?”
The answer, of course, is not to censor or be cowed into silence for answering that Gazans and Palestinians, too, should be considered human enough.
Dr. Altaf Saadi is a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, and associate director of the MGH Asylum Clinic.