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.

Ronen Zvulun/ Reuters
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.

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.

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.

"There's a very easy inclination of Israelis to see any criticism coming from Europe as derived from the wrong reasons. There are some cases where you see if not antisemitism, then vicious attacks on Israel, and it gives some Israelis incentive to put it all under one roof, and say 'they're against us,'" Peri explains.

That said, Lieberman and other ministers may have exacerbated the situation by publicly turning up the heat on Swedish officials. "Lieberman himself did the wrong thing. He could have dismissed it in a sarcastic way without making it a political issue," he says.

The left-leaning newspaper Haaretz agreed, calling Lieberman's reaction "no less outrageous or inciting" than the original article. The paper added in an editorial: "Israel must not be perceived the way the Muslim world was after the affair of the Mohammed caricature that appeared in a Danish newspaper a few years ago. Then, too the absurd demand was raised that Denmark's prime minister condemn the publication."

Blood libel

But other, more populist newspapers took a different stance. In Ma'ariv, Ben-Dror Yemini said the article was indeed a blood libel similar to the medieval myth that Jews used the blood of Christian children to bake Passover matza. In the mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronoth, Eitan Haber wrote in a front-page column: "Freedom of the press does not mean the publication of lies that justify the killing of IDF soldiers and Israeli civilians. Would the Swedish freedom of the press and freedom of speech be vaunted were a local reporter to write that the Swedish royal house was running, for example, a brothel?"

While the ensuing controversy will give journalism schools fresh fodder to debate the merits of press freedoms versus social responsibility, the diplomatic and economic ripples are still being felt. Israeli officials have not "uninvited" Mr. Bildt but are asking that he "distance" himself from the article if not condemn it. An online petition calling on Israelis to boycott IKEA, Sweden's popular furniture store, was quickly drawn up. The petition also asks Israelis to avoid buying other Swedish products, such as those made by Volvo, Absolut Vodka, and the fashion chain H&M.

Meanwhile, on Sunday Aftonbladet published a second article accusing the Israeli army of harvesting Palestinian organs. The article tells the story of a Palestinian family which received the body of their 19-year-old son, killed by Israeli soldiers in 1992, with a scar running from his neck to his stomach. The article calls on Israel to investigate the issue in order to disprove the rumors. In an editorial on Monday, Aftonbladet editor Jan Helin said he is "a responsible editor who gave the green light to an article because it raises a few questions."

The head of Israel's Government Press Office, Daniel Seaman, acknowledged Monday that he was holding up all request for press credentials from Swedish nationals for rigorous, three-month investigations. Without GPO credentials, foreign journalists are unable to cover Israel, or to enter the Gaza Strip. He claimed that some Swedish nationals asking for credentials turn out to be activists and not journalists.

"The fact that they published antisemitic filth in their paper doesn't get anyone upset. But the fact that we will not provide credentials, that has people up in arms," Mr. Seaman says. "We don't expect an apology, but we're expecting them to do the morally decent thing by denouncing this kind of virulent antisemitism," Seaman adds. "We're talking about old antisemitism dressed up in modern circumstances, and it's part of a current of trying to deny Israel its right to self-defense and creates a sinister image of us."

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