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Eric Rosenthal reports: Komen in Egypt: Global Politics & Overreaction to Misreported Incident Threaten to Derail Breast Cancer Advocacy Efforts in the Middle East

doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000364231.92920.26


The global cancer effort is far from immune from the impact of global politics, as witnessed in Egypt in late October when that nation's health ministry uninvited two Israelis days before the start of a conference sponsored by Susan G. Komen for the Cure to train advocates from various nations in the Middle East about breast cancer support groups.

An online report published by the Israeli media network Arutz Sheva (Channel Seven) triggered a viral tirade of virulent e-mails—many erroneously sporting as its subject: “Egypt Conference—No Jews Allowed”—that in effect accused the Komen organization of condoning anti-Semitism, and threatening to discontinue any future support or donations if the organization didn't pull out of the conference immediately.

The US-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL) also got involved by issuing a press release with the headline: “ADL Calls Exclusion of Israeli Experts from Susan G. Komen Awareness Programs in Egypt ‘Shocking.’”

Three days later the league's National Director Abraham H. Foxman issued a statement of appreciation for Komen's getting the Israelis reinstated, and claiming some credit for having reached out and urged Komen to “ensure Israel would not be unfairly excluded.”

The incident largely flew under the radar of national media attention in the United States, but some of the e-mails forwarded to me in confidence and written by influential members of the American Jewish community were highly emotional and venomous—and largely based on incomplete and incorrect information.

The furor lasted a few days until Komen released a statement from its founder Nancy Goodman Brinker that read: “After we received the initial report on the situation, we launched a diplomatic effort to ensure they would be able to participate. I am pleased to report that our efforts led to confirmation that all advocates would be welcome to participate in the events.”

Interestingly the statement included Ms. Brinker's maiden name rather than the customary reference to her middle initial “G.”

According to sources, some of those who had initiated the hateful e-mails said the issue had been resolved—with some assuming their actions had forced Komen “to do the right thing.”

But those individuals were never presented with the facts of the full story, and there is still some concern about lingering ill feelings toward what is the world's largest advocacy and private funding organization for breast cancer research and outreach, which, ironically was founded by an Ashkenazi Jew in memory and honor of her sister Susan G. Komen who died from the disease nearly 30 years ago, and has funded nearly $2 million in cancer research in Israel.



The story also offers a cautionary tale about co-opting one organization's global cancer agenda with other political agendas, a situation that placed Komen in a position of being damned if it did and damned if it didn't.

The purpose of the event was to “break the silence” about breast cancer through a week of activities held in Egypt during what is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in the US.

A press release from Komen explained that breast cancer advocates from the US and the Middle East were to gather at the Suzanne Mubarak Regional Center for Women's Health and Development in Alexandria under the auspices of Egyptian First Lady Suzanne Mubarak and with the support of the Egypt Ministry of Health and US Agency for International Development (USAID) in Egypt.

On Oct. 21 the Egyptian Health Minister hosted a public commemoration of Global Breast Cancer Awareness Month that featured comments from among others US Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey, Komen President and CEO Hala Moddelmog, and Egyptian officials representing the Breast Cancer Foundation of Egypt, the Suzanne Mubarak Women's International Peace Movement, and the Mubarak regional health and development center.

The next day 30 breast cancer advocates from the Middle East and North Africa were to participate in a Komen-sponsored Regional Training on Breast Cancer Support Groups program designed to provide advocates with practical information and tools to start support groups in their respective nations.

Two of them were Israelis: a dermatologist who was a breast cancer survivor and a psychologist, both of whom were invited as advocates by Komen.

In addition other events included an Egypt Race for the Cure at the Giza Pyramids (which were turned pink for the occasion) on Oct. 24 that attracted some 10,000 participants, and the 15th Annual Multidisciplinary Symposium on Breast Disease and First International Breast Health Education Program in Cairo, Oct. 24–27.

The symposium was organized by Shahla Masood, MD, Professor of Pathology at the University of Florida College of Medicine and Chief of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Shands Cancer Center.

The keynote speaker was Nancy Brinker, Komen founder, current World Health Organization Goodwill Ambassador for Cancer Control, and former Chief of Protocol for the US State Department and Ambassador to Hungary (OT, 9/10/09). Ms. Moddelmog also served on a panel.

But the symposium was independent of Komen's advocacy efforts, which included inviting the participants from the Alexandria workshop to join a delegation of 41 Americans, including a number of Jews, to visit breast cancer-related organizations in Cairo.

On Oct. 19, Arutz Sheva reported online that: “US Organization Hosts Cancer Meet, Israelis not Welcome: A United States-based organization's conference on breast cancer awareness, to be hosted in Egypt, has been touted by international news networks as an example of ‘unprecedented cooperation’ in the region. However, according to Channel 2 news, the celebration of unity may be premature, as Israeli doctors were told at the last minute that their invitations to participate had been rescinded.”

The report said that Israeli doctors were invited to the event and that several had planned to attend, but on Sunday night they received brief notices telling them that they were no longer invited, by order of Egyptian Health Minister Hatem el-Gabali, and that the notices did not include an explanation for the decision.

It added that despite canceling the Israeli presence, Egyptian officials continued to praise the event as an example of regional cooperation, and quoted the head of Egypt's Breast Cancer Foundation as telling Reuters on Monday that “the week's events are a demonstration of the cooperation between countries, governments, civil society, advocates, survivors, and the global community as a whole. It shows that breast cancer has no boundaries and reveals the beauty of the world's unity in its fight against breast cancer.”

It was this account that sparked passionate concern among some American Jews who began forwarding copies to others, many of which were erroneously titled: “Egyptian Conference—No Jews Allowed,” and writing threatening e-mails to Komen including one that read: “You have my promise that I will do everything in my power to make your organization pay a heavy price for your objective anti-semitism [sic].”

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Didn't Tell Komen Leadership

OT learned that apparently lower-level members of the Komen organization did not bring the situation to the attention of Ms. Brinker, Ms. Moddelmog, or other Komen leaders when first learning of the rescinded invitations, and naively tried to resolve the issue themselves through the Egyptian health ministry bureaucracy that had—for reasons still unknown—revoked the Israeli advocates’ invitations in the first place.

And since they were both en route to Alexandria at the time, neither Ms. Brinker nor Ms. Moddelmog was informed until Tuesday of that week.

I spoke with Ms. Brinker while she was still in the Middle East visiting Israel with Hadassah Lieberman, wife of US Senator Joseph Lieberman (ID-CT), to discuss planning breast cancer awareness events in Israel next year.

“Sadly, discrimination against Israelis does take place despite the great work that is done there to fight cancer,” Ms. Brinker said. “Once high-level Susan G. Komen officials heard there was a problem, we were able to take a stand through our diplomatic efforts on behalf of our Israeli friends. Fortunately, Komen's efforts combined with the efforts of the American Embassy in Cairo were successful and the Israeli advocates were invited to attend the conference in Cairo.

“When you work in politically challenging environments, it's always very difficult. But discrimination should never interfere with scientific efforts to prevent cancer, and we will continue to carry out our global mission.”

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Asked for Help from US Embassy

Ms. Moddelmog told OT that she took advantage of speaking at the same event as Ambassador Scobey Oct. 21 to ask for the US Embassy's assistance, which resulted in a resolution within several hours.

Nancy Brinker had initially responded to critical e-mails demanding Komen's immediate withdrawal from the conference by noting that there were three key factors in the organization's decision to remain in Egypt and continue to help women there who are “suffering and dying needlessly of this disease: the timing of the events, which are already under way; the number of participants involved; and the large number of survivors, activists, and scientists already in transit to attend.

“We remain committed to our trip to Israel next week to begin planning similar events,” she wrote.

OT contacted Arnold J. Felsenfeld, MD, a nephrologist at the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center associated with UCLA Medical School, who said he had read about the banning of Israeli doctors from the Komen conference in Arutz Sheva.

He said he also discussed the incident with other members of the UCLA medical faculty and received some e-mails from colleagues who had seen the online account and were very upset that Komen was going ahead with the conference.

Dr. Felsenfeld was not among those who wrote to Komen.

He added that many people were probably also reacting to reports from a month earlier about the Egyptian Culture Minister who lost his bid to be director of the UN's culture and education agency, UNESCO, when it was learned he had threatened to burn any Israeli book found in the Library of Alexandria.

“However, I didn't realize at the time that the conference was happening then,” Dr. Felsenfeld said. “I and others originally thought that Komen still had time to cancel because of the banning of the Israelis, but I see now that they [Komen] were blindsided.”

He said that in retrospect people's reactions toward Komen might have been more tempered if they realized that canceling at that time was not a viable option.

I also spoke with Derek Alpert, President of Concern Foundation, a Los Angeles-based cancer basic research foundation, who had heard about the incident through friends.

Emphasizing that his comments were personal and did not reflect the position of his organization, he said he was initially surprised and dismayed to learn what happened, and thought “how could Komen continue to sponsor a conference that banned Israelis?”

He added he had contacted a cancer researcher with whom he would be meeting the following week in Israel, and was told that the account appeared in a very militant publication and he wasn't sure the facts were all correct.

Some reports have described Arutz Sheva as identifying with religious Zionism.

Ms. Moddelmog said that although the invitation to the two Israelis had been reinstated, they were not able attend for logistical reasons related to timing later in the week.

And reports that Jews or Israeli researchers were banned from Egypt were much exaggerated since the two women had been invited in advocacy not research capacities, and others who would have otherwise been banned for so-called religious affiliations were participating in the Cairo conference sponsored by the University of Florida.

© 2009 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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