Doctors at OHSU Send Letter to Jacobs, Other Leaders Demanding Stronger Statement on Hamas Attack

The original message didn’t label the assault as antisemitic or as terror.

Dr. Danny Jacobs (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff) (Kristyna Wentz-Graff/OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

Doctors and other staff at Oregon Health & Science University yesterday circulated an open letter to the institution’s leaders calling on them to make a more forceful statement after Hamas gunmen killed at least 1,300 people last Saturday in the deadliest attack in Israel’s history.

OHSU is the second institution in Portland to be roiled by its response to the attack. Yesterday, Multnomah County commissioners clashed over the wording of a joint statement and on whether to hold a vote on lighting the Morrison Bridge in the colors of Israel’s flag, as the county did after Russia invaded Ukraine.

For OHSU, the open letter and a subsequent response are the latest in a line of administrative actions that have angered employees. Last month, OHSU handed out bonuses to 10% of its staff, including top brass that report to university president Danny Jacobs, drawing a rebuke from unions. Days later, on Oct. 4, OHSU said it would discontinue health benefits for domestic partners, a decision it reversed the same day.

The discord over the attack on Israel began Monday evening when at least one doctor wrote to Jacobs asking for a statement, a person familiar with the matter said. Late on Tuesday, OHSU leaders included a message about the assault in a weekly communiqué to employees.

“We know many members of the OHSU community are deeply impacted by the unthinkable violence in Israel and the Gaza Strip over the last several days,” the message, obtained by WW, said. “As a proud multi-cultural community, committed to building an equitable environment free of hate and prejudice, and improving the health and well-being of all people, we mourn the loss of innocent Israeli and Palestinian lives, hope for a peaceful resolution for those taken hostage by Hamas, and stand in support of our Jewish and Muslim communities and all those impacted by these events.”

For some OHSU staff, the message was too timid in its treatment of Hamas and demonstrated a shallow understanding of Israeli suffering. The same doctor who had written Jacobs on Monday reached out again late Tuesday, saying that the statement had fallen short. The next day, that doctor and others began drafting their open letter.

“The emailed statement does not describe Hamas as a terrorist organization, nor does it address anti-Semitism as the root of such terrorism,” the open letter, also obtained by WW, says. “The OHSU statement does NOTHING to acknowledge the pain we are all experiencing as American Jews today, whether or not we have loved ones killed or injured in Israel.”

The 73 doctors who have signed the letter so far asked OHSU to “revise its statement and issue a statement that provides meaningful, necessary, and tangible support to the Jewish members of the OHSU community and of the communities it serves. Words matter.”

During signature gathering for the open letter, Jacobs sent a second, stronger message about the attack.

“Recently we shared a brief message in the operations update offering our support and identifying resources for all those impacted by Hamas’ anti-Semitic, terrorist attack on Israel,” Jacobs said. “I want to further emphasize that we feel the horror of the atrocities. Our support for our Jewish community is unequivocal and our hearts hurt for all who have been killed, injured or taken hostage and who are being directly and indirectly impacted by the violence.”

The new language did not resolve the matter. OHSU staff sent their open letter to Jacobs, School of Medicine dean David Jacoby, provost Marie Chisholm-Burns, and others this morning.

“Many people thought the second email missed the mark, too,” the doctor who had emailed Jacobs said. She declined to make her name public, saying she feared antisemitic reprisals.

“We have observed many non-Jewish friends, family, and colleagues attempt to respond to this senseless violence by falling back on ‘the situation in the Middle East Is complicated’ and ‘Israel’s right wing government has made mistakes,’” the letter says. “Yes, the entire geopolitical history of the region is incredibly complex, and scholars and analysts spend years trying to understand it. There are times to be critical of the Israeli government—indeed, Israelis themselves have been protesting and standing up for preservation of their democratic structure for months. Unfortunately, ‘anti-Israeli government’ quickly becomes ‘anti-Israel,’ which very quickly becomes anti-Semitism, i.e. Jewish lives don’t matter.”

Since the Hamas attack, Israel has retaliated by bombing the Gaza Strip, killing at least 1,900 Palestinians, according to The New York Times. Hundreds of thousands are fleeing the northern part of the blockaded territory after Israel’s military warned them to relocate as troops mass nearby. This afternoon, a pro-Palestinian group marched in downtown Portland, as WW’s news partner KATU-TV reported.

So far, no OHSU leaders have responded the open letter, the doctor said. Nor did Jacobs ever respond to the email on Monday evening that started this week’s events.

“I have not heard anything from OHSU leadership,” the doctor said. “I’ve never felt so lonely as a Jew in the this country. We need allyship now.”

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