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Israeli officials press Sweden on journalist's organ theft story

Angry Israeli politicians and journalists charge claim of organ theft from Palestinians a "blood libel." They're seeking Swedish government condemnation, and threaten a chill in diplomatic relations if it isn't forthcoming.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 25, 2009

Shoppers browse in a branch of the Swedish retail store IKEA in the Israeli city of Netanya, north of Tel Aviv on Monday. An online petition is calling on Israelis to boycott the Swedish furniture chain.

Ronen Zvulun/ Reuters

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Jerusalem

In the view from Jerusalem, the answer to the controversy is simple: the Swedish government should condemn Aftonbladet, the tabloid which last week printed an article suggesting that Israel snatched the organs of Palestinians who died in their custody.

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In the view from Stockholm, the answer is equally simple: Israel should accept that in a democracy, newspapers are free to print what they wish, and that it isn't the place of governments to interfere.

In between these two "simple" views is a gulf of understanding that underlines the cultural differences between Europe and the Middle East.

The controversy began last week when Aftonbladet ran a story by journalist Donald Bostrom. He claimed that in 1992 while working in Israel and the occupied territories he'd heard rumors that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were harvesting organs from detained Palestinians. He claimed that unnamed "UN staff" told him that "organ theft had definitely occurred." Bostrom suggested these claims should be reexamined following the arrest last month of a Jewish-American accused of plotting to buy a kidney from an Israeli and to sell it to an American patient.

The article upset many in Israel, the most outspoken of whom was Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who compared the article to a medieval "blood libel," in which Jews were periodically accused of killing a Christian child for supposed rituals. He said that the Swedish government's refusal to make any comment to condemn the story was reminiscent of Sweden's "silence" during the Holocaust. Israel's finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, said that Swedish officials "may not be so welcome now in Israel" – particularly problematic since Stockholm holds the rotating EU presidency and Sweden's foreign minister, Carl Bildt, is due to visit Israel in early September.

Deep distrust

Yoram Peri, the head of the Chaim Herzog Institute for Media, Politics and Society at Tel Aviv University, says that the report touched a raw nerve among Israelis – who already harbor deep distrust towards Europe and feel that the continent's newspapers cover the conflict with a pro-Palestinian tilt. While he agrees the article has no merit, he suggests that Lieberman and other politicians may have blown the controversy out of proportion for political purposes.

"Lieberman expressed the feeling of many Israelis who do not understand the European narrative, and they think that any criticism comes from total misunderstanding of the Middle East, or because Europe is totally antisemitic and pro-Palestinian. Very few politicians, unfortunately, are sophisticated enough to distinguish between legitimate criticism and attacks by those with other motives," says Mr. Peri, an expert on the Israeli media and former political advisor to Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who was assassinated in 1995.

Peri has spent the last four years bringing together editors and journalists from Europe and Israel for a variety of studies about how the two see each other.

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