Journal defends firing editor for ‘detrimental’ Palestine post

Michael Eisen removed as editor-in-chief of eLife after sharing article from satirical news website

October 24, 2023
Barbed wire fence between Israel and the West Bank
Source: iStock

The board of eLife has defended its decision to remove the editor-in-chief of the open-access journal after he shared an article on social media that “calls out indifference to the lives of Palestinian civilians” amid the ongoing Israel-Gaza war.

Michael Eisen, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, shared a story on X (formerly Twitter) from the satirical news website The Onion – headlined “Dying Gazans criticized for not using last words to condemn Hamas”on 13 October, which he said was using satire “to make a deadly serious point about this horrific tragedy”.

The post – which has been viewed almost two million times – prompted criticism on the platform and calls for his resignation, but Professor Eisen defended himself, posting: “Every sane person on Earth is horrified and traumatized by what Hamas did and wants it to never happen again.

“All the more so as a Jew with Israeli family. But I am also horrified by the collective punishment already being meted out on Gazans, and the worse that is about to come.”

He later revealed that he was being replaced as editor-in-chief for sharing the story, which he said “calls out indifference to the lives of Palestinian civilians”.

Multiple editors of the journal have since indicated they have resigned from their positions in protest at Professor Eisen’s sacking, while a petition warning of the “chilling effect” on freedom of expression has collected more than 1,000 signatures from scientists.

This petition argues that Profession Eisen’s social media posts should not be grounds for removal by eLife or censuring by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, where he is an investigator.

“Open debate in this country should never include promotion of violence, but it must allow the articulation of views that make some people uncomfortable,” it reads.

“Censuring Eisen for expressing views uncomfortable to some would ally eLife and HHMI with one side of an ongoing political issue, create a chilling effect on open debate in American academia, and risk ushering in a new wave of McCarthy-esque targeting of peace activists.”

The petition also warned that Professor Eisen’s removal would have further ramifications – with many graduate students and faculty members said to be feeling vulnerable because “they support Palestinian human rights, or because of their Middle Eastern ethnic backgrounds”.

Lara Urban, a principal investigator at Helmholtz Pioneer Campus and one of the editors who has resigned in protest, said in a statement that Professor Eisen’s dismissal “sets a dangerous precedent for freedom of speech” and validated cyber-bullying as a successful and legitimate tool to get scientists with controversial opinions fired.

The board of eLife said it had asked two deputy editors, Detlef Weigel and Tim Behrens, to serve in Professor Eisen’s place until the end of 2024, while it conducted a search for a new editor-in-chief.

“Mike has been given clear feedback from the board that his approach to leadership, communication and social media has at key times been detrimental to the cohesion of the community we are trying to build and hence to eLife’s mission,” they said in a statement.

“It is against this background that a further incidence of this behaviour has contributed to the board’s decision.”

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Reader's comments (2)

Horrendous that censorship-and pressure-should be used to fire Professor Eisen. Albert Einstein made some quite pungent criticisms of Israel. I wonder if he would also be censored these days?
On what basis was Professor Eisen removed from his position? For sympathy with the loss of lives? This is not grounds for removing an excellent editor; it is a disgrace.