A. Kayum Ahmed, Bram Wispelwey, and Yara Asi
In an open letter to President Biden more than 100 faculty from schools of public health and medical schools across the United States joined calls for a ceasefire in Gaza and an end to attacks on hospitals. Signatories include Dr. Mary Bassett, director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, and Dr. Seema Yasmin, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, poet, and medical doctor. Our demand for a ceasefire adds to the growing number of calls from UN agencies and civil society organizations who recognize that the US government has both a legal and a moral obligation to exert its power and influence to protect the wounded, the sick, and civilians from the effects of hostilities.
Our letter seeks to add to the growing pressure on the US government to move from its unwavering support of Israeli military aggression and attacks on health care, to upholding international law. Some of us work directly with healthcare workers in Gaza, many of whom are our former students. They have shared the horrors of working in hospitals, characterized as “death zones” by the World Health Organization, and have described their existence in necropolitical terms, as somewhere between the living and the dead.
Healthcare workers in Gaza are not only struggling with the deaths of patients, but also with the deaths of family members and co-workers. Nearly 250 health workers in Gaza have already been killed, with hundreds more injured. Recent reports indicate others have been detained by the Israeli army, with their families unaware of their fate. Those who have remained physically safe have affirmed their commitment to stay with their patients despite ongoing threats to their lives and the personal and logistical challenges of continuing to provide care in such harrowing conditions. We feel a profound sense of solidarity with our colleagues in Palestine and commit to supporting their struggle for justice and liberation.
While we recognize the limited impact of open letters to persuade the US government to end its unconditional financial and political support of Israel’s military actions, increasingly deemed by human rights groups to be war crimes, our letter also commits signatories to teach students about the settler-colonial determinants of health. Faculty who signed the open letter teach across 70 public health and medical schools and departments in the United States. We believe it is essential to examine the root causes of what is currently unfolding in Gaza, which has been described as “apartheid” by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, along with many other human rights groups, scholars, and even former Israeli officials. Awareness of the manifestations of occupation, like movement restrictions, land seizures, and home demolitions, as well as the systemic violence and forced displacement that all Palestinians are currently experiencing at the hands of the Israeli government, should be discussed in any classroom that purports to center health equity.
Many of us who already teach about Palestine have come under intense pressure from our respective universities to remain silent about Israeli apartheid. Several academics who wanted to sign this letter expressed fear about losing their jobs. While some have diagnosed the current crisis across US universities as an erosion of academic freedom, others suggest that universities are increasingly beholden to donor interests. We believe that global north universities have always been part of the colonial project and that the epistemic erasure of Palestine did not start on October 7.
As the authorized producers of knowledge, universities have long held the power to determine who is the researcher and who is the researched; who can produce knowledge and who can, at best, become a recipient of that knowledge. While this power is usually exercised through a form of “civilized” violence that includes bureaucratic rules determining who gets hired, tenure, or grant funding, the question of Palestine has unveiled the paradoxical nature of our academic institutions. The university is both a site of liberation and oppression—it offers the possibility of acquiring knowledge that might serve as a catalyst for reordering the world, while at the same time, the epistemic and pedagogical architecture of the university can reinforce colonial logics centered on capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy.
As faculty, we are inspired by our students who remind us what it means to be courageous. Our former students in Gaza, almost all of whom have been displaced, have continued to provide medical care for their communities amidst unimaginable conditions, while themselves sheltering for their lives. Students in the United States and across the world have advocated for justice for Palestine, despite institutional pushback and, in some cases, overt harassment and defamation. We draw strength from their epistemic and ethical disobedience. Our letter is a commitment to our students; it is a modest attempt to create spaces in our universities that reflect what Moten refers to as “the undercommon refusal of the academy of misery.”
Ultimately, our letter is a call to action. We continue to encourage colleagues in schools of public health and medical schools to add their names, not only as an act of solidarity with Palestinians, but also as a collective commitment to justice, liberation, and disobedience.
Dr. A. Kayum Ahmed is an Assistant Professor at Columbia University’s School of Public Health, New York, USA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Bram Wispelwey is an Associate Physician in the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, an Instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and also teaches at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, USA.
Dr. Yara Asi is an Assistant Professor of global health management and informatics at the University of Central Florida’s College of Community Innovation and Education, USA.