UCSF Must Divest!

School of Medicine

To many, the recent air strikes in Gaza seem far away, morally turbid or politically hopeless — so distant from our lives that the morbidity and mortality reports out of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories read more like news trivia than records of human suffering, even for those of us in the health professions. But what is happening in Gaza is not incurable; nor is it unrelated to our lives, and our institution.

As students, medics, workers and educators, it is our moral duty to use our collective clout to advance health equity, human dignity and an end to preventable illness and infirmity. And as UCSF affiliates, we are in a great position to do so, as the alleviation of suffering lies at the heart of every question we research, every seminar we hold, every shift we work — and should be the goal of every dollar we spend.

Our campus is not only part of one of the best public universities in the world, but is also the city’s largest employer — all of which is to say that the actions we take matter. With the privilege of the best education comes the highest of responsibilities.

We at UCSF need to join students at the University of California at Irvine, which this November became the first UC campus whose student body voted — unanimously! — to support the global campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, encouraging its administration to disinvest from entities complicit in Israel’s illegal and inhumane occupation of Palestine. They write: [node:field_syn_pull_quote]

Just as the global boycott of South Africa was essential to ending apartheid in that country, the BDS movement is a necessary component of the broader struggle for justice today; and now, as then, students (particularly students of color) are among the most crucial actors.

It is the most peaceful and powerful means of protest available to those of us troubled by the historic parallels. Those concerned with the return of rocket fire by Hamas militants in particular should recognize the power this nonviolent strategy has for people left with no other options.

One of the most devastating consequences of the Israeli occupation is the dismal state of health in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The numbers, even from 10 years ago, reveal stark differences.

For every 1,000 persons in their respective populations, infant mortality is 6.3 for Israelis, 29 for Palestinians; maternal mortality was 6 for Israelis, 70 for Palestinians; adult female mortality was 68 for Israelis, 125 for Palestinians. There are 37 Israeli and only 9 Palestinian doctors for every 10,000 members of their populations; the difference in nurses is 66 to 14; and there are 59 hospital beds in Israel to Palestine’s 12, many of which are neither operational nor accessible.

Organizations like Physicians for Human Rights — Israel are unequivocal in their assessment of the root cause of Palestine’s fractured, failing health system. It is, ultimately, the state of Israel’s unjust control of underlying determinants of health, such as water and sanitation, its strictures on mobility for ill Palestinians seeking treatment (as well as neutral medical personnel offering care), and its active infliction of violence, accompanied by the trauma it engenders.

The goal of the BDS movement is not to malign particular companies, many of which have also used their resources for positive advances in health care research and technology; it is certainly not to promote anti-Jewish sentiment or endorse militant retaliation from Palestinians.

Instead, it is to ensure ethical accountability across the books — and the borders. It is tangible, specific and symbolic. We should be excited to leverage the reputation and endowment of the University of California system in solidarity with current and historical movements for peace.

As medical professionals, we should arguably be most invested in the BDS movement, stirred on by the gruesome images of death and disablement suffered by innocent civilians on both sides, angered by the disruption of medical personnel, theft of resources and denial of basic health care.

To do no harm, UCSF must divest from the state of Israel, or else have its work tainted by the blood on the hands of these occupying partners. I am confident that the UCSF community will stand on the right side of history, because I have seen the energy of my colleagues poured into advocacy, outreach, service and research, with unbounded optimism that our actions will improve others’ lives.

When Paul Farmer spoke at UCSF this fall, I was struck by the astonishing results of Partners in Health’s work in post-conflict Rwanda, and asked: Does health equity depend on political equality and enfranchisement, or can it be advanced in lieu of broader peace reforms?

He responded by saying, “Public health requires a modicum of peace and stability; and part of what we need to do, all of us, is know that it’s important to have less structural violence — the insidious kinds of racism, gender disparity, etc. — and also, less fueling of event violence — war, genocide.”

Medical neutrality is not political indifference. Health efforts cannot succeed where colonial oppression is the institutionalized norm, and it is up to us to use our freedoms to demand those that Palestinians also deserve, to demand peace in both of these senses.

I urge all who read this to get involved, whether by attending our meetings, signing our petition, encouraging BDS in your home or organization, or simply reading the news with an open heart. As Nelson Mandela framed it: “Having achieved our own freedom, we can fall into the trap of washing our hands of difficulties that others face.”

Nurses, doctors, students and hospital workers do not wash their hands of difficulty; we have chosen to engage with it, to delve into difficulty where our hands are most needed. We are needed in the fight for peace in Palestine.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The author failed to note the source of her statistics in her original article. The source was "Realizing Potential: Prospects for the Development of the Palestinian Health System and Economy in the Gaza Strip." A rebuttal to this op-ed appears here.