Free speech controversies are almost always cast in the media as a duel, with a journalist challenging the powers-that-be, and the powers-that-be attempting (and often succeeding) to smother the revolt. The scandal that’s been dominating headlines in Israel in recent weeks, by contrast, is more reminiscent of a traffic pile-up: A newspaper publishes unfounded smears, local public figures fail to contain the scandal, and then a third government delightedly smashes in, creating a veritable mess.
To recap, some two weeks ago the Aftonbladet, a Swedish tabloid, published an incoherent report by one Donald Bostrom, alleging that the Israeli Defense Forces are in the habit of killing Palestinian youths to harvest their organs. The Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, demanded an apology — not from Aftonbladet, but from the Swedish government. The Swedish government refused to apologise, citing principles of freedom of speech and political non-intervention, which incensed the Israeli government even more. Now thousands of Israeli consumers are threatening to boycott the local IKEA branch, while Lieberman attacks Sweden for being “as complicit as it was during World War Two”, and, for good measure, chides Norway for celebrating 150 years to the birth of its greatest author, Knut Hamsun, (who in his dotage, and long after his literary accomplishments, developed a feverish admiration for the Nazi movement.)
The report in Aftonbladet was a textbook example of poor journalism. It also, in a rare instance of Israeli accusations of Jew-hatred actually being true, definitely reeks of anti-Semitism. The whole article is geared towards establishing a deliberately vague linking of the recent case of one of the accused in the New Jersey money laundering arrests:
“You could call me a ‘matchmaker’, said Levy Izhak Rosenbaum, from Brooklyn, USA, in a secret recording with an FBI-agent whom he believed to be a client. Ten days later, at the end of July this year, Rosenbaum was arrested and a vast, Sopranos-like, imbroglio of money-laundering and illegal organ-trade was revealed in New Jersey: rabbis, politicians and trusted civil servants had for years bin involved in money laundering and illegal organ-trade.
Rosenbaum’s matchmaking had nothing to do with romance. It was all about buying and selling kidneys from Israel on the black market. Rosenbaum says that he buys the kidneys for 10 000 dollars, from poor people. He then proceeds to sell the organs to desperate patients in the States for 160 000 dollars.”
The very reference is already inaccurate — Rosenbaum was the only one of the “rabbis, politicians and trusted civil servants” accused of any connection to organs trade, and only one kidney purchase is believed to have come from Israel, with the rest believed to have come from Eastern Europe. Not deterred by such nuances, Bostrom continues:
“Francis Delmonici, professor of transplant surgery at Harvard and member of the National Kidney Foundation’s Board of Directors, tells the same newspaper that organ-trafficking, similar to the one reported from Israel, is carried out in other places of the world as well.”
Note how the Israeli connection is re-inforced in an indirect quote. He then goes on to weave an embarrassingly improbable story about the failure of an Israeli public campaign for organ donation to “of a dramatic increase of young men disappearing, with ensuing nightly funerals of autopsied bodies”.
Bostrom then splashes through to the story of one such alleged victim:
“When Bilal was close enough they needed only to pull the triggers. The first shot hit him in the chest. According to villagers who witnessed the incident he was subsequently shot with one bullet in each leg. Two soldiers then ran down from the carpentry workshop and shot Bilal once in the stomach.”
Several high-velocity bullets into the chest and abdomen sure leave a whole lot of organs to be harvested. Bilal’s body is returned five days later, and
“As Bilal was put in the grave his chest was uncovered. Suddenly it became clear to the few people present just what kind of abuse the boy had been exposed to. Bilal was not by far the first young Palestinian to be buried with a slit from his abdomen up to his chin.”
In the photographs accompanying the report, a man’s body is pictured sown up, so it is unclear how the journalist determined organs were missing; not a single medical opinion — Israeli, Palestinian or international — is quoted to reinforce the claim, while the family of the victim told the Jerusalem Post they had never told Bostrom organs have been taken. Oh, and the incident took place 17 years ago, and Bostrom confesses not to have spoken to the family since.
It would seem that the best avenue of action for anyone concerned with anti-Semitism was to ignore it — the report appeared on the back pages of a tabloid, and would have been forgotten within days. Failing that, a libel suit might have been in order; Bostrom claims that “doctors in management positions at the big hospitals participate [in the illegal organ trade]”. Israel’s medical services are among the best in the world and attract thousands of students and patients every year; surely, the Israeli hospitals could have joined together to file quite an awesome compensation suit against the newspaper.
Israel chose instead to demand a formal Swedish apology, displaying a rather shocking ignorance of the official lack of connection between press and government in a democratic state. Nevertheless, Sweden could, at that point, have defused the scandal, by making a non committal comment to the effect of “while we cannot and should not take responsibility for something printed in the free press, we do find it regrettable some journalists and editors don’t bother to substantiate the rather serious allegations that they print.”
However, Sweden has a long tradition of freedom of speech, being one of the first countries in the world to have enshrined the principle in its constitution in the 17th century. Israel’s defenders have pointed out that the Swedish government did intervene into the Danish Islamophobe cartoon scandal and ordered a Swedish website hosting their reproductions closed; what they omit, however, is that this was the initiative of the then foreign minister, Laila Freivalds, rather than government policy. When her involvement in the shutting down of the website was exposed, she had to step down — and her party subsequently lost the elections. The then opposition leader, and now prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, made good use of the scandal, and could hardly be expected to reverse his position now.
In the meantime, Israeli authorities have introduced restrictions on Swedish journalists attempting to enter the country.
While it still remains to be seen how the crisis will be resolved, the political subtext of this diplomatic brawl must not be overlooked. This year, the EU, reassured by the United States, is finally beginning to step away from its long-cherished policy of exceptionalism towards Israeli suspected human rights abuses, violations of international agreements, and shunning of UN resolutions. Lieberman, himself a fanatical nationalist who supports ethnic cleansing (“population swap”) and archaic loyalty laws, would like nothing better then to present the EU’s current president — Sweden — as anti-Semitic and manipulated by its Muslim citizens and vested interests in the Arab world. The bad news is that a series of coincidences, a piece of journalistic trash and an unimaginative Swedish response, have handed him the opportunity on a golden platter. The good news is that he already seems to have blown it.
Apart from the politics, however, the ones damaged most by the scandal are individuals and NGOs genuinely concerned with human rights in the Occupied Territories.
Dimi Reider is an Israeli journalist. He also co-manages Causeway — an experience-sharing project linking Israel-Palestine and Northern Ireland