How not to handle international blood libel

Israel attacked the wrong target after a Swedish paper published a racist report about the IDF

By Miriam Shaviv, August 27, 2009

Last week, Aftonbladet, a Swedish tabloid, carried a story alleging that the IDF killed Palestinians in order to harvest their internal organs.

Commentators immediately seized on the strong echoes of the medieval blood libel, in which Jews were accused of killing Christians to use their blood for religious rituals. The author of the story, Donald Bostrom, relied solely on Palestinian sources, without even approaching the IDF for comment (the family of Bilal Ahmed Ghanem, the Palestinian at the centre of the scandal, now denies they ever said his organs had been stolen). And the editor of the paper, Jan Helin, reacted by accusing Israel’s “propaganda machine” of using antisemitic images itself “in an apparent attempt to get an obviously topical issue off the table” — showing a tin-ear for the kind of antisemitic cliches which got his paper into so much trouble in the first place.

It hardly needs saying, then, that the “Swedish blood libel” is a sick, racist lie, and terribly upsetting to Jews, for whom the historical evocations are all too strong.

And yet Israel was wrong to turn the paper’s slander into a major diplomatic incident.

The foreign minister, PM and other government officials have repeatedly demanded that Sweden issue a formal condemnation of the report. When Sweden refused — citing freedom of the press — heavy hints were dropped that the Swedish foreign minister, due to visit next month, was no longer welcome. A former ambassador to Sweden declared that the country has no press freedom because too many papers “are connected to the Social Democrat movement and the trade unions”; thousands of Israelis have signed a petition to boycott Ikea.

Israel’s relationship with Sweden has been severely damaged and the Swedish press, which initially condemned Aftonbladet, is now behind its government. But Sweden is right: in a democracy, the government is not responsible for what the press says, and cannot be expected to apologise on its behalf.

Successive Israeli governments have suffered at the hands of the rambunctious Israeli media, and would probably be the first to say they can’t control it. Israeli columnists have asked whether Mr Obama was an antisemite; would Mr Netanyahu like to be held to account? Or perhaps he should have skipped his UK visit this week because the Guardian recently ran a comment piece accusing Israel of “ethnic cleansing”, and making the West Bank “Palestinian-frei”?

It is true that the Swedish government has once condemned the press. In 2007, a Swedish paper printed a sketch of the Muslim prophet Mohammed as a dog, and a diplomat apologised to Pakistan. The Swedes are hypocrites here. But at the time, I daresay, most of us would have argued that the Swedes were cowards and villains for apologising to the Muslims. If they were wrong then, apologising to Israel would be wrong now.

Instead of going after the Swedish government, Israel should have concentrated on the offending newspaper itself. It would have been a fabulous opportunity to expose the low journalistic standards routinely applied to Israel in the international media. Instead they turned it into a diplomatic face-off, and lost.

Miriam Shaviv is the JC’s Foreign Editor

Last updated: 12:11pm, August 27 2009