It was perhaps inevitable that Levy Izhak Rosenbaum, the Brooklyn Jew recently arrested by the FBI for dealing in black-market kidneys, should conjure up medieval anti-Semitic myths of Jews stealing blood and body parts from Gentiles.
What is more surprising, however, is that a respected newspaper should publish an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory drawing tenuous links between Rosenbaum and 10-year-old accusations that the Israel Defense Forces routinely steal Palestinian people’s body parts.
In an article published on 17 August in Aftonbladet, Sweden’s largest circulation tabloid newspaper, journalist Donald Boström linked the international organ trafficking scandal exposed by the FBI to claims made by Palestinians he met in the early 1990s about the IDF stealing organs from people in the occupied territories. The article, titled ‘“They plunder the organs of our sons”’, has caused a diplomatic row between Israel and Sweden. Sweden now finds itself charged with having a blood libel case on its hands.
Boström hooked his article off the case of Rosenbaum, who was arrested in July 2009 after offering to obtain a kidney from an Israeli donor for an undercover FBI agent. Rosenbaum allegedly told the agent that he has been involved in arranging kidney sales for 10 years and that all the donors come from Israel. Boström then says there have been ‘strong suspicions’ amongst Palestinians that young men captured in the occupied territories have been forced to give up their internal organs before being murdered by the IDF.
In classic conspiracy theory style, Boström draws tenuous links between separate alleged events, appears to accept rumours and suspicions as facts, and strongly suggests that unanswered questions equal evidence of foul play.
Boström and Aftonbladet have, understandably, been slammed by Israeli officials – but the Israelis’ over-the-top response doesn’t do them any favours, either. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded that the Swedish government condemn Aftonbladet for publishing Boström’s article. Finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, said that Swedish officials who refuse to condemn the paper would be unwelcome in Israel – an unsubtle hint to Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, who is due to visit Israel soon. Swedish leaders have said that, in the interest of freedom of expression, they will not dictate what the country’s media should or should not publish.
Israel’s interior ministry then announced that it is freezing the issue of entry visas to Swedish journalists, while the director of the Israeli government press office told his staff to delay the press accreditation process for two Aftonbladet journalists currently working in Israel. He undiplomatically joked that it could take some time to test the reporters’ blood in order to assess their eligibility for organ transplants.
The Swedish embassy in Tel Aviv published a statement on its website condemning the Aftonbladet article as ‘appalling,’ leading the Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, to hail the bravery of the Swedish ambassador to Israel. Displaying a total lack of historical perspective, Lieberman even likened the ambassador to Raul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who rescued Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. The statement on the website was later removed, however, presumably under pressure from the Swedish government. Lieberman then said that the Swedish government’s refusal to condemn Aftonbladet was reminiscent of its country’s ‘neutral’ stance during the Second World War. He also said that this latest scandal recalls the Dreyfus Affair – the historic and scandalous trial a century ago of a Jewish officer in the French army accused of treason.
So what did Boström actually say in the incendiary piece? After sketching the case against Rosenbaum, he argued that Israel has been accused in the past of turning a blind eye to illegal organ trafficking across its border and pointed out that there is a lack of organ donors in Israel. In the early 1990s, Boström writes, the Israeli government launched a relatively successful campaign to encourage Israelis to become organ donors, but the gap between supply and demand remained. Here, Boström’s article takes a sinister turn. He writes: ‘While this organ campaign went on, young Palestinian men were disappearing, returned five days later to their villages at night, dead and slit open.’
Boström spent time in the occupied territories in the early 1990s. That is when he heard rumours that the IDF was emptying Palestinian bodies of organs. The IDF says that autopsies of captured bodies are a routine procedure, in order to establish the cause and circumstances of death, yet one 19-year-old victim’s family interviewed by Boström were convinced that their son’s organs had been stolen.
Boström links together an ongoing legal case in the US with rumours from the occupied territories to tell an hysterical story about Israeli organ theft. There is a serious need for organs in Israel, he says; there is also an investigation into an illegal international kidney trade which goes back 10 years and involves some Israeli doctors; and there are some Palestinians who suspect that the IDF routinely steal organs. Thus, he concludes: ‘It is time to bring some clarity over this macabre operation, about what is happening and what has happened in the Israeli-occupied territories since the start of the Intifada.’
The only fact clearly revealed in Boström’s piece is that journalistic standards at Aftonbladet are very low indeed. A cobbled-together piece of hearsay and prejudices passed muster with the paper’s editors and is now defended by the paper as a valid piece of reporting. Unfortunately, the overreaction of Israeli politicians to this affair has only allowed Aftonbladet to claim the moral highground as some kind of free speech warrior when, in fact, its editors are defending the freedom to let conspiracy theories pass for serious journalism.
Of course, Israelis – and anyone else for that matter – have the right to think and say whatever they want about Boström’s article. But unfortunately Israeli officials’ clampdown on Swedish journalists, and their demands that the Swedish government meddle in press affairs, will likely only perpetuate today’s widespread mythical stereotype of Jews controlling the media and trying to puppeteer international affairs.
Moreover, although Boström’s piece bears clear resemblances to medieval anti-Semitic myths, to claim that this is a modern-day re-run of something like the Dreyfus Affair not only lends undue weight to what is essentially a shoddy piece of writing and an uncoordinated response from Swedish officials – it also misses the point about what is new about today’s incessant criticisms of Israel.
Although today’s widespread discomfort with Israel sometimes mutates into the expression of anti-Jewish sentiment, as witnessed on some of the protests against the Gaza War earlier this year, we are not experiencing a return to medieval Europe or to early twentieth-century France, where the Dreyfus Affair almost tore the French republic apart. Instead, what motivates the politics of anti-Zionism today, what drives the incessant focus on Israeli wickedness amongst European academics, political activists and media commentators, is not old-style anti-Semitism but a contemporary sense of distance from and loathing of Western values. Israel is seen as embodying modern values and ideals that are now widely held in contempt in the West.
Yes, there does sometimes seem to be a thin line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. At an anti-Israel demonstration in London in January, for instance, protesters evoked classic anti-Semitic imagery likening Israel to a blood-sucking, baby-killing monster, with one demonstrator wearing a hook-nosed mask and pretending to eat Palestinian babies. There were also widespread calls for boycotting Israeli shops, products and businesses which were, in fact, Jewish-owned rather than Israeli. Around Europe, some protesters chanted ‘death to the Jews’ and ‘Hamas, Hamas, all Jews to the gas’.
However, it must be reiterated that rational and passionate criticism of Israel does not equal anti-Semitism. There are a great many legitimate and genuine criticisms to be made of Israel’s politics and its continuing suppression of Palestinian people’s national rights. The deeply censorious impulse of those Israel supporters who rush to condemn all expressions of anti-Zionism as anti-Semitic should be challenged.
More broadly, what we are witnessing today is not the revival of ancient hatreds but rather the singular demonisation of Israel as the embodiment of everything that is rotten about the modern world. At a time when national sovereignty is no longer seen as sacrosanct, Israel’s resistance of external meddling in its affairs is viewed as chauvinistic arrogance and as offensive to the sensibilities of many Western liberals who are quick to call for sanctions, boycotts and international intervention to correct Israel’s behaviour.
At a time when America has come to be regarded as the ultimate force for evil (well, at least until Obama stepped in), many find an outlet for their hatred of America by protesting against Israel. At a time when politicians and the media alike are regarded with cynicism and suspicion, both are blamed for being subservient to Israeli or Jewish interests. When anti-Israel protesters draw up lists of ‘Israeli’ businesses, call for boycotts of Israeli products and smash the windows of Israeli shops, it does indeed have strong historical resonances – but today this kind of Israel-bashing is chiefly a way of letting off steam about the supposed perils of consumption and Big Business.
Today, Israel has become a ready symbol for everything from the perceived harmful effects of consumer society to the shortcomings of international politics and the agenda-driven media. The Aftonbladet article is an isolated case which can easily be picked apart as an unsubstantiated, prejudiced conspiracy theory. At the same time, however, it is also the latest in a long list of disparate examples of how old anti-Semitic myths are resurfacing in rejumbled form as modern-day criticisms of Israel. That such myths can be deemed acceptable reportage by a national daily paper shows that, when it comes to criticising Israel, rationalism and accuracy count for little; rather, expressing one’s own angst and general kneejerk reaction against the ‘dark forces’ that rule over us is the key driver of mainstream anti-Israel sentiment today.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked. The above translations of sections of Boström’s article are by Nathalie Rothschild.