Lest there be any misunderstanding: As an Israeli and a Jew, I don't believe that the current government of Sweden is quasi-Nazi, that all Swedes are anti-Semites, or that I should boycott Ikea, the Swedish furniture firm. At the same time, to remove all doubt, I solemnly declare that I have never been involved in the international trade in organs for transplant. I do feel exceedingly silly bothering to make these denials. But they seem somehow necessary in light of the current Swedish-Israeli tensions, which are a product of egregiously incompetent journalism in a Swedish paper and equally irredeemable diplomacy by Israel in furious response.
Technically speaking, the affair began last week with an article headlined "Our Sons Plundered for Their Organs" that appeared in the back pages of Aftonbladet, a major Swedish paper. Writer Donald Boström began by describing the July arrest in New York of Levy Izhak Rosenbaum on charges of buying kidneys from Israeli donors and selling them in the United States to people in need of transplants. From there, Boström leaps to describing "strong suspicions" among Palestinians that Israel has abducted young Palestinian men to "serve as the country's organ reserve before being killed."
To prove that those suspicions warrant an International Court of Justice investigation into "possible Israeli war crimes," Boström leaps back to 1992, when he was in the West Bank working on a book. At the time, he writes, a campaign was underway in Israel to register potential organ donors. Though the effort brought a large increase in potential donors, the country still suffered from a transplant shortfall.
"While the campaign was in progress, young Palestinian men disappeared from villages in the West Bank and Gaza," Boström says, adding that their bodies were later returned to their villages, after being cut open and sewed up. "There were rumors of a dramatic increase of young men disappearing, with ensuing nightly funerals of autopsied young men," he writes.
Boström himself witnessed the funeral of one Palestinian, whom he identifies as Bilal Achmed Ghanan, in the village of Imatin. Ghanan (or Ghanem, as he's identified in a reliable listing of Palestinian fatalities) was shot by Israeli soldiers and evacuated. When his body was returned for burial, Boström photographed the sewn-up chest. In his1600-word article in Aftonbladet, Boström has two sentences from an Israeli source, an army spokesperson who "claimed" that the allegations were false and that the Palestinians had simply undergone autopsies. Boström dismisses that argument. (The Swedish article is here, an English translation from a Palestinian site here. A very precise Swede who checked the translation told me it's roughly accurate; my quotations include his corrections.)
One would have to work hard to produce more biased reporting. The only actual connection between Rosenbaum's arrest and Boström's allegations against Israel are that both involved Jews. Rosenbaum allegedly told clients that the kidneys were from Israelis, not for them. In 1992, the tail end of the first intifada, there was no "dramatic increase" in Palestinian fatalities. The numbers were up slightly from the year before, but far below the height of the uprising. In Boström's article, the allegations of organ theft actually come from other Palestinians elsewhere in the occupied territories -- but not from Ghanem's family. Speaking to Israeli reporter Roni Shaked this week, family members said Ghanem was shot and died on the spot, making him an unlikely transplant source. The foundation of Boström's story is Palestinian rumors, the coincidence that an Israeli donor-registration campaign took place while he was in the area, and a photo of a body on which an autopsy was performed. One might as well wander about Alabama interviewing people certain Barack Obama was born abroad, throw in a denial from the White House for "balance," and demand an investigation.
And yet, only in a technical sense did the affair begin with Boström's story. "No one even noticed the article -- which is, incidentally, anti-Semitic and absolutely untruthful -- when it was buried in the last pages of Aftonbladet," Lena Posner, leader of the Swedish Jewish community, later told the Israeli paper Ha'aretz. The diplomatic blowup and international attention actually came with the response of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. "This is an article that shames Swedish democracy and the entire Swedish press," said ministry spokesperson Yigal Palmor, demanding that the Swedish government condemn the article.
When Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt declined, citing his constitutional obligation to freedom of the press, his far-right Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, escalated the rhetoric. Stockholm's behavior, he declared, was "reminiscent of the stance of Sweden during World War II, when it also didn't intervene."
Overnight, responsibility for an offensive article had expanded from a reporter and his editor to the entire Swedish press, to Sweden as a nation, which was failing to prevent Nazis from marching out of the pages of Aftonbladet and repeating the Holocaust. In a curious way, Lieberman's reaction reflected the same kind of thinking as Boström's: For the writer, charges against a Jew in Brooklyn substantiated allegations against Israel; for the minister, an ignominious report in one newspaper rendered all Sweden guilty.
At least among his natural audience, Lieberman's message resonated. An Internet petition demanding a boycott of Ikea and other Swedish companies, posted by a West Bank settler, had over 12,000 signatures by Tuesday. Meanwhile, Boström was reportedly overwhelmed by interview requests from around the world. In Sweden, as local Jewish leader Posner commented, "the debate has changed from anti-Semitism to freedom of speech."
Knowing how to respond to slander is never easy. The defamed party worries that silence will be taken as confirmation. In this case, though, saying nothing might have insured that Boström's story quickly became fish wrap. If the Israeli government felt silence was untenable, it could have demanded a retraction from Aftonbladet or equal space for a response, or checked whether Swedish law allowed for a libel suit. A judgment against the paper by a Swedish court, as prominent Israeli legal commentator Moshe Negbi notes, "would help us much more than all the other steps, which have only hurt us."
Domestically, Lieberman's response has a certain political logic. Over-the-top foreign condemnations of Israel boost support for defiant right-wing policies. The classic example is the U.N.'s 1975 "Zionism is racism" resolution, which set the stage for the Gush Emunim movement's first public success in expanding West Bank settlement. A newspaper article isn't a U.N. resolution, but Lieberman turned it into an affront by a government. Perhaps, though, it's a mistake to ascribe such calculations to Lieberman. Reflexively, it seems, he sees Israel as tottering on the edge of another Holocaust, and as he once told me in another context, "At the end of the day, we will be alone." Boström merely reinforced his certainty.
The lessons of the affair, I'd suggest, are these: Sometimes, some reports critical of Israel really are anti-Semitic. Nonetheless, hysterical responses replete with Holocaust references only increase the damage. At the least, they suggest that just because someone is out to get you, doesn't mean you aren't paranoid.