A little tip for peace lovers: Try not stealing the organs of your enemies

by Yaniv Reich on December 23, 2009

I really did not want to write a story about organ theft in Israel. The ugly accusations and the even uglier reality seemed too sensational to be worthy of the time I needed to compose a post. But buried in the guts of the story is an important point about Israeli “diplomacy”, i.e. official and utter rejectionism of any idea that doesn’t accord with Israelis’ preconceived ways of thinking. In particular, the fiasco provides a useful case study of Israel’s cynical use of allegations of anti-semitism to discredit its critics, no matter the message being brought forth by those critics.

First, some background. In August 2009 ago a Swedish paper, Aftonbladet, published an article alleging that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) stole organs from dead Palestinians in the 1980s and 1990s. This precipitated hysterical reactions from Israeli officials, including charges of “blood libel” (old medieval tales of human sacrifice by Jews) and anti-semitism. These reactions were typified by the response of Israel’s Finance Minister when he said:

“Whoever doesn’t distance himself from this kind of blood libel might not be a welcome guest in Israel at this time. Until the Swedish government understands differently, the state of Israel, the state of the Jews, cannot ignore anti-Semitic expressions and modern recycling of medieval anti-semitism.”

Accordingly, Israeli ministers held up Swedish visas and did their best to turn the matter into a full diplomatic crisis by demanding that Sweden condemn the article.

Well, you know what? It turns out that in the past week, Israel has admitted to harvesting the “skin, corneas, heart valves and bones from the bodies of Israeli soldiers, Israeli citizens, Palestinians and foreign workers, often without permission from relatives in the 1990s and some of the dead Palestinians from whom organs were harvested were killed during military raids,” as reported everywhere. One of the main culprits in the organ theft is Dr Yehuda Hiss, who was formerly director of Israel’s L. Greenberg Institute of Forensic Medicine, and is now chief pathologist (he was fired from his post at the forensic medicine institute of director for “repeated body-part scandals” even though he keeps the latter position). In an interview in 2000, he said, among other things:

“We started to harvest corneas … Whatever was done was highly informal. No permission was asked from the family.”

Many of these organs ended up in military hospitals with the full “sanction and approval” of the military, according to UC Berkeley anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Highes.

All of these subjects were debated today in Knesset.

This scandal is obviously pretty shocking stuff. Unapproved organ theft is obviously immoral and condemnable. Moreover, I would argue this is particularly so for Jews and Muslims who hold strong beliefs about bodies needing to be buried with all pieces intact. This is precisely why there are teams of rabbis whose job it is to scrape the torn and burnt flesh of Jewish victims of suicide attacks off the benches and windows of the site—to make sure all of it is there for proper burial. In the context of such religious beliefs, this organ theft scandal is particularly offensive.

I would argue the same thing applies when you are stealing the organs of your so-called enemies, with whom you are allegedly trying to make peace.

Israel would do very well to start taking its own lawbreakers much more seriously, and to stop crying wolf so much when people criticize it. I encourage any readers to consider Israeli/Jewish charges of anti-semitism in light of this story (as well as all other misapplications of the idea).

And it would also do well to devise some other method for dealing with what seems to be a shortage of organs. For example, recent reports suggest Israel might be one of the world’s first countries to have a system of organ donation based on points.

Ignoring the irony (or is it?) of this story appearing this week, I am going to go on record as saying that creating incentives for people to voluntarily contribute their organs to a greater good is much better than stealing them illegally from your enemies.

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