A doctor’s oath and occupied Palestine

Despite facing calls for her dismissal, Dr Ritika Goel continues to speak out on Palestine.

People chant and wave a giant Palestinian flag as thousands gather in Toronto to show their support for the people of Palestine, on May 15, 2021 [Cole Burston/ AFP]

Eleven years ago, Dr Ritika Goel took an oath.

Part symbolic ritual, part solemn commitment, it is the Hippocratic oath that doctors have been obliged to recite for millennia. Dr Goel, a Toronto family physician and teacher, has made it plain throughout her career that every word of that oath imbues her every deed as a healer.

Beyond her fidelity to the oath’s more familiar aspects, Dr Goel, by all accounts, has always kept this lesser-known instruction front of mind: “I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings.”

As such, in her practice, Dr Goel has tended to the poor, the homeless, the stateless, the addicted, the troubled in mind, body and spirit. And, unlike her often more circumspect colleagues, she has spoken up, whenever necessary, in her patients’ defence because that “special obligation” requires her to do so.

Dr Goel understands, her friends say, that this abiding obligation extends to human beings in desperate need beyond Canada’s borders. In the past, this has meant expressing solidarity, from time to time, with besieged Palestinians on Twitter and elsewhere.

So, when violence erupted earlier this month in Israel and occupied Palestine, Dr Goel exercised her obligation yet again to draw attention – as deliberately as she could – to the suffering and trauma being visited largely upon Palestinian children, women and men.

Shortly after she tweeted in support of the Palestinians, a letter was released, penned allegedly by “students, residents, and physicians” affiliated with the University of Toronto’s medical school, where she teaches.

The letter is a ridiculously short and, at times, nonsensical, jargon-laced, hodgepodge of unsubstantiated allegations, grievances, and hysterically out-of-context references to three tweets penned by Dr Goel that, taken together, the authors apparently consider prima facie evidence of a “prevailing culture of antisemitism and xenophobia” at the medical school and, more particularly, grounds for her immediate dismissal.

I am not going to dissect the letter’s flimsy, sinister construct of Dr Goel’s tweets since that would mean repeating the calumny in order to discredit it. In any event, Dr Goel does a clinical and persuasive job of condemning anti-Semitism and addressing the true meaning and context of each tweet in this thread on her Twitter account. Her detractors would be wise to read it.

The transparently unserious nature of the supposed ammunition the letter-writers gather to make such serious allegations against an esteemed faculty member is compounded by the instructive fact that none of the offended “students, residents, and physicians” attached their names to the defamatory note.

These unidentified “students, residents and physicians” have singled out Dr Goel for censure and are, in effect, blaring anonymously: J’accuse.

That Dr Goel’s accusers have chosen collectively to issue a so-called “open” letter from the agreeable comfort of the shadows not only reflects their malicious motivations, but conveniently shields them from having to defend openly their spurious insinuations and avoid experiencing the possible costly consequences of their reckless actions.

Their inability to respond substantively to the intelligent, cogent findings of Israel’s history of prosecution of apartheid against Palestinians as a matter of international law without reflexively shouting “anti-Semitism” in a scattershot letter also confirms just how bereft of gravitas their feeble indictment of Dr Goel is.

Still, while their identities are concealed, the poisonous intent is clear: to sully Dr Goel’s reputation and to strip her ultimately of her well-earned place as an advocate for the poor, the homeless, the stateless, the addicted, the troubled in mind, body and spirit in the faculty of one of Canada’s top medical schools.

The letter’s other, unspoken aim was, I suspect, a warning flare to other medical school faculty and students not to join Dr Goel in making common cause with Palestinians online to avoid being tarred as anti-Semites, as well.

They failed.

First, word is that Dr Goel has not been disciplined and is not the subject of an investigation by University of Toronto administrators.

Second, more than 1,000 medical students and physicians co-signed a letter and petition that was, at once, a vigorous defence of Dr Goel and a stinging, point-by-point rebuttal of a “deeply problematic letter calling for the dismissal of a valued professor” and “grave and unsubstantiated allegations of anti-Semitism.”

The letter goes on to scold Dr Goel’s would-be censors for conflating “criticism of the state of Israel or the ideology that is used to justify Israel’s war crimes (as pointed out by Human Rights Watch and other reputable organisations) [as] anti-Semitic.”

The signatories ended their response with this blunt admonition: “There is absolutely no room for anti-Semitism in our medical school. However, equally, raising inflammatory and potentially defamatory claims about colleagues is also unacceptable.”

Later, Dr Goel joined almost 3,000 healthcare workers from across the country in signing another letter calling on Canada to denounce the recent attacks on Palestinians, including the ruinous assault on Gaza’s health and civilian infrastructure; to end its military support to Israel that helps enable the occupation of Palestine; and to end the institutional censorship of Canadians who publicly defend the human and civil rights of Palestinians.

To her credit, Dr Goel continues to tweet about occupied Palestine – undeterred, unafraid and unbowed.

In words, tweets and deeds, she embodies the power and necessity of breaking what Palestinian Canadian academic and writer, Mark Muhannad Ayyash, describes as the “fear barrier”.

For too long, declaring support for imprisoned Palestinians has been considered risky business. For too long, declaring support for imprisoned Palestinians has invited the hyperbolic wrath of Israel’s evangelical allies who too quickly equate the defence of one people as an anti-Semitic attack on another.

Armed with honesty, resilience and unwavering fealty to her oath, Dr Goel is proof that the old modus operandi designed to quash criticism of Israel’s inhumane designs in occupied Palestine is, bit by inevitable bit, losing its potency.

The corollary, of course, is that Dr Goel is an eloquent example to others to let go finally of their worry and reticence and, instead, call out the wounds and injustice that generations of Palestinians have had to endure.

By defeating fear, Dr Goel remains faithful to the final passage of the oath she swore to uphold: “May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.