The journal confirmed in a statement that it had fired Michael Eisen, its editor-in-chief, over retweeting an article by the satirical news website on the violence in the Middle East.
“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. It is against this background that a further incidence of this behaviour has contributed to the board’s decision,” the statement said.
Mr Eisen, who is Jewish, commented on his firing in a statement on X/Twitter.
“I have been informed that I am being replaced as the Editor in Chief of @eLife for retweeting a @TheOnion piece that calls out indifference to the lives of Palestinian civilians,” he wrote on the social media site.
The spark that ignited the controversy began on 13 October, when Mr Eisen — who works as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute-funded geneticist at the University of California, Berkely, praised an Onion article satirising the way Israel supporters and certain media personalities demand denunciations of Hamas from anyone who expresses concern for the welfare of Palestinian civilians.
The Onion story was titled “Dying Gazans Criticized For Not Using Last Words To Condemn Hamas.”
Israel has been engaged in a bombing campaign in Gaza as retaliation for a 7 October attack in which Hamas entered southern Israel and killed approximately 1,400 Israelis.
More than 5,000 Palestinians have been killed since the fighting broke out, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza.
Mr Eisen praised the article for its "courage" and "moral clarity."
“The Onion speaks with more courage, insight and moral clarity than the leaders of every academic institution put together. I wish there were a @TheOnion university,” he wrote.
His support for the article prompted backlash among supporters of Israel who perceived his support of Palestinian civilians as a lack of empathy for the Israelis who were killed in the Hamas attack.
He pushed back on those insinuations in a follow-up statement.
“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," he wrote. "But I am also horrified by the collective punishment already being meted out on Gazans, and the worse that is about to come. … The Onion is not making light of the situation. And nor am I. These articles are using satire to make a deadly serious point about this horrific tragedy.”
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. https://t.co/Lzl2jc5hiP
— Michael Eisen (@mbeisen) October 14, 2023
For some, like Yaniv Erlich, a prominent Israeli-American scientist who serves as the CEO of Eleven Therapeutics, that explanation was not enough.
“Empty words. For 7 days you haven’t tweeted a single time words of supports [sic] for Israeli researchers, some of which lost kids and friends. And now you dare to give us military advice from your privileged position of safety. What a moral bankruptcy,” he wrote in response to Mr Eisen's statement, according to Science.
After Mr Eisen’s firing, Mr Erlich said that while he disagreed with the scientist’s views, his dismissal was not a “preferred outcome.”
Critics called for Mr Eisen's resignation or firing. He met with eLife's board on 19 October to discuss his tweets and the ensuing controversy and told Science that “without much explanation other than that the tweet had caused problems for eLife. … The board doesn’t want eLife to be embroiled in controversies and they look at me, I guess, as someone who makes things controversial.”
The board reportedly told him he would be fired if he did not resign, but he refused to leave willingly.
“They’re going to alienate and have alienated a huge part of the community: people who don’t think it’s bad to express political opinions that not everybody agrees with,” Mr Eisen told Science.
His firing resulted in Lara Urban, a reviewing editor at eLife, resigning.
“Mike’s dismissal for expressing his personal views sets a dangerous precedent for freedom of speech in our academic community,” she wrote on X/Twitter. “[I]t validates cyber-bullying as a successful and legitimate tool to get scientists with controversial opinions fired.”
A senior editor at eLife, Molly Przeworski, also said she planned to resign, calling the board's decision "both discriminatory and a dangerous precedent." She also said that it violated the journal's code of conduct to be "respectful of differing opinions, viewpoints, and experiences."
The journal offered the following statement when asked about Mr Eisen's firing and the subsequent fallout at the publication:
“We regret that a number of editors have made the decision to resign as a result of both Mike’s tweets and our decision on the matter but firmly believe this decision is best to safeguard eLife’s future and reputation. We are aware of the open letter and we value and respect everyone’s right to freedom of speech. Particularly for those in leadership positions, exercising that right comes with responsibilities: an expectation to show good judgement and a duty of care to the communities they serve. We don’t believe those qualities have been demonstrated in this and previous instances.”