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What's behind claims about Israel organ trade?

Are Israeli officials harvesting Palestinian organs, or is it just another Mideast conspiracy?

Swedish journalist Donald Bostrom, whose story on alleged transplant organ theft, published in a Swedish newspaper, provoked outrage in Israel last August, speaks in the southern Israeli town of Dimona, Nov. 2, 2009. The newspaper, Aftonbladet, repeated Palestinian accusations dating to the early 1990s that the Israeli army took organs from men who died in custody. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

JERUSALEM — Donald Bostrom, a freelance Swedish journalist who wrote an article this summer accusing Israeli officials of trading in Palestinian organs, came to Israel late last month to defend his piece at a conference on the media.

Neither Bostrom, who needed a bodyguard because of the stir his article has caused, nor the media came out looking good.

At the conference in the southern Israeli town of Dimona, the 55-year-old Swede argued that he did what any reporter would do in airing the suspicions of Palestinian families whose sons’ cadavers were returned to them post-autopsy. It’s up to Israel, he said, to investigate the claims cited in his article, specifying that he had no proof that the organ trade went on.

“If you’re a journalist, you always interview, you ask questions, and get answers,” he told the conference.

True, but journalists generally make further investigations to verify if the answers they got were based on anything but speculation. In Bostrom’s case, he appears to have put two and two together and got five, linking the dead Palestinians with an organ-stealing scandal at Israel’s forensic institute and the arrests of several New York Jews last summer who were accused of organ trading.

“It is absolutely bad journalism, and it’s influenced by anti-Semitic opinions,” said Dina Porat, head of Tel Aviv University’s Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism and Racism. “Without checking his facts, he perpetuates the historical attitudes toward Jews — that they will do any nasty deed.”

He isn’t the only one. The media (not only newspapers in Israel and abroad, but also bloggers of ill-defined association and international television stations broadcast over the internet) misread Bostrom’s article, perhaps deliberately, so as to suggest that he wrote something far worse — namely that the Israeli army killed Palestinians deliberately to harvest their organs. Both pro-Israeli and anti-Israeli media have cited that nonexistent element of Bostrom’s article as evidence to back their particular animus over the case.

The reason Bostrom’s accusations have created such a stir isn’t just that they’re a lot more speculative than would pass muster at most American news organizations. It’s that, on the one hand, they seem to Israelis to confirm the anti-Semitism of the international media, while also appearing to justify the virulent anti-Israeli sentiment that has spilled across the internet since Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza at the turn of the year.

Israeli government minister Silvan Shalom refused to attend the Dimona conference (and cancelled its public funding) because of Bostrom’s presence, saying he was “a person who created a blood libel against the State of Israel and its soldiers,” referring to anti-Semitic accusations over the centuries that Jews used the blood of gentile children for sacred rites.

Meanwhile, an Iranian website picked up the ball and ran with it, reporting that the scandal wasn’t limited to Palestinians, but alleged that Algerian children were “falling prey to [a] Jewish organ harvest.”