Blood libel row merited Israeli outrage

The anger over a Swedish paper’s allegations of IDF organ harvesting was justified

By Alex Brummer, September 3, 2009

The row began as an item on the culture pages of Sweden’s best-selling newspaper Aftonbladet and ended as a diplomatic stalemate. It is significant because Sweden currently holds the presidency of the European Union.

On August 19, Donald Bostrom, a writer for the Swedish paper, ran a contentious report under the headline: “They plunder the organs of our sons.” The article claimed that young men from the West Bank and Gaza had been seized over the years by Israel Defence Forces and bodies returned to their families with missing organs.

“Our sons are used as involuntary organ donors,” claimed relatives of a person identified as “Khaled from Nablus” and “returned by night, dead and autopsied”. The article was accompanied by a photograph of a dead Palestinian man, taken after autopsy, with stitches along his torso.

The report went on to draw a link between these alleged events and the high-profile arrests in July in New Jersey of 44 members of an alleged crime syndicate, one of whom — a rabbi — was charged with conspiring to broker the sale of a human kidney.

Unsurprisingly, the Swedish report produced an instant and shocked riposte from Israel. The UK’s Telegraph quoted Daniel Seaman of the government press office saying the article played on “vile antisemitic themes”.

The Swedish embassy in Israel condemned the article, claiming it was “as shocking and appalling to us Swedes as it is to Israeli citizens”. As the outrage in Israel built, the New York Times reported that Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu was urging the Swedish government to “condemn” the article. He told a Cabinet meeting that the allegations were “outrageous” and a “blood libel”. The NYT explained the background: medieval charges that Jews ritually killed gentile children to use their blood.

Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s Foreign Minister, added that the silence from Stockholm was “reminiscent of Sweden’s position during World War II, when it did not become involved”. As an immediate retaliation, Israel delayed a visa request for two visiting Swedish journalists from Aftonbladet.

Guardian media blogger Roy Greenslade noted that the Swedish government “cannot intervene” because it regards it as a press freedom issue. Carl Bildt, the Swedish Foreign Minister, who is due to visit Israel this month, confirmed this, saying that while his country opposed antisemitism, it was not prepared to muzzle the press. As the Greenslade blog notes, Lieberman retorted that Stockholm was using the press freedom issue as “a fig leaf” before comparing Sweden’s inaction to the “Dreyfus affair”.

The website HonestReporting, which monitors Middle East media coverage, argues that “such outlandish stories take on a life of their own… preserved [on the internet] for Israel’s enemies to dig up… to delegitimise and demonise the Jewish state”.

On the Guardian’s Comment is Free website, City trader turned Israeli citizen and writer Seth Freedman argues that the original Swedish report about supposed organ harvesting in the West Bank is not “antisemitic — it’s bad journalism”. He suggests that pro-Israel commentators are too quick to level charges of antisemitism. “There is no excuse for antisemitism. Likewise, there is no excuse for stifling any criticism of Israel under the suffocating cloak of accusations of Jew-hatred,” he writes.

Freedman is right to point out that charges of antisemitism, if used too often, lose their bite. But in this case the journalism from a country which prides itself on its humanitarian values, was so insubstantial and the investigation so cursory, that the barrage from Israel’s defenders was deserved.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 2:03pm, September 3 2009