What's behind claims about Israel organ trade?

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.”

The spread of such stories isn’t merely a political problem for Israel. It justifies people’s historical hatred for Jews and, in turn, causes anti-Semitic attacks, said Tel Aviv University’s Porat. The university’s annual reports on anti-Semitism show the number of attacks on Jews around the world rising steadily — to 651 last year, from 78 in 1989.

Bostrom argues that he was posing a question that the Israeli government needs to address. But in these internet days speculative musings are soon converted into concrete fact in the minds of many people around the world, whether they concern Barack Obama’s birthplace or Israel’s misdeeds.

Bostrom’s article appeared in Aftonbladet, a left-of-center tabloid, last summer, having previously been turned down by Dagens Nyheter, another Swedish newspaper. Under the headline “Our sons are plundered of their organs,” Bostrom wrote a story similar to one which had appeared previously in a book he wrote in 2000 (the book was reprinted five times in Sweden).

To summarize, Bostrom says that in 1992 U.N. personnel suggested he investigate the return of bodies of Palestinians killed by Israeli troops, after autopsies that were often against the will of the family. Bostrom says he witnessed the return of one such body to a village in the northern West Bank. He saw a long autopsy scar on the torso.

The dead youth’s family, he said, told him, “We are sure they took our son’s organs.”

Israel has, indeed, investigated the taking of organs against the will of families of the deceased by Prof. Yehuda Hiss, who was director of the Abu Kabir Institute of Forensic Medicine. The probe began after the heart of a Scottish tourist who died in Israel was discovered to be missing. Hiss was found to have taken organs or body parts from 125 corpses, including Israeli soldiers, and providing them to universities and medical institutions for research purposes.

Hiss was forced to step down as director of the institute in 2005 as a result of these investigations, though he retains his post as Israel’s chief pathologist.

With the Hiss case in the background, Bostrom made the leap to the arrest of several dozens of men in New York and New Jersey in July. The group, which included five rabbis, were accused of money laundering, public corruption and organ trafficking.

It’s this unverified link in Bostrom’s article that suggests anti-Semitism, according to Porat. “If someone told him Palestinians were trading organs, he’d have checked it upside down,” she says. “But with Israel he doesn’t need to check. Israel has become a symbol for evil and any accusation against it is somehow believed on its face.”

The Middle East tends to thrive on conspiracy theories. Perhaps Bostrom just caught a little of that bug. Certainly his article flirts with the fringes of journalistic ethics. (In a television interview posted on the internet, he says “it’s not up to me to have any evidence” to back up his story. That, he says, is a role that should be taken up by an Israeli inquiry.)

Maybe Bostrom’s having second thoughts about the effect of his article. He was reported to have cancelled plans to attend an anti-Israel conference in Beirut.

In any case, each of the stories he linked is, individually, bad enough. Autopsies without family consent, Hiss’s illicit trade, the shady U.S. rabbis. Bostrom’s willingness to link them made his story controversial and irresponsible.