By Alison Weir – first published in 2009
In August Sweden’s largest newspaper published an article suggesting that Israel had been taking Palestinian internal organs. The article, by veteran photojournalist Donald Bostrom, called for an international investigation.
Israel and its partisans immediately cried “anti-Semitism,” and Commentary’sJonathan Tobin asserted that the story was “the tip of the iceberg in terms of European funded and promoted anti-Israel hate.”
The fact is, however, that Israeli organ harvesting—sometimes with Israeli governmental funding and the participation of high Israeli officials, prominent Israeli physicians, and Israeli government ministries—has been documented for many years. Among the victims have been Palestinians.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes is Chancellor’s Professor of Medical Anthropology at the University of California Berkeley, the founder of Organ Watch, and the author of scholarly books on organ trafficking. She is the pundit mainstream media call upon when they need expert commentary.
While Scheper-Hughes emphasises that traffickers come from numerous nations and ethnicities, including Americans and Arabs, “Israel,” she states, “is at the top. It has tentacles reaching out worldwide.”
In a lecture last year she explained that Israeli organ traffickers “have a pyramid system at work that’s awesome…they have brokers everywhere, bank accounts everywhere; they’ve got recruiters, they’ve got translators, they’ve got travel agents who set up the visas.”
But this is no ordinary business. Organ traffickers prey on the world’s poorest, most desperate citizens, promising them what seem like astronomical sums of money ($1,000 to $10,000) in return for vital internal organs. As Scheper-Hughes points out, organ trafficking consists of “paying the poor and the hungry to slowly dismantle their bodies.”
Organ sales have been illegal in most countries for years, and the Convention against Transnational Organised Crime includes in its definition of human exploitation the extraction of organs for profit. Until very recently, however, the Israeli government not only permitted organ trafficking, it funded it.
Israelis are the leaders in “transplant tourism”—traveling to other nations to buy internal organs. While affluent individuals from numerous countries engage in this practice, Israel is unique in several ways.
First, Israelis partake at an extraordinarily high rate. According to a 2001 BBC report, Israelis buy more kidneys per capita than any other population.
Second, Israelis have the lowest donor rate in the world—one-third to one-fifth that of Europe—due in part to beliefs that Jewish religious law prohibits organ removal as “desecration of the body.”
Third, the Israeli government has enabled it. In testimony before a congressional subcommittee in 2001, Scheper-Hughes described what she termed Israel’s “national ”˜program’ of transplant tourism.” For many years the Israeli health system subsidised its citizens’ “transplant holidays,” reimbursing Israelis $80,000 for medical operations abroad, with the remaining costs largely covered by government-subsidised insurance plans. In addition, Israel’s Ministry of Defence has been directly involved, as members of the ministry or those closely related to them accompany transplant junkets.
Israeli traffickers have utilised people from diverse locations—the West Bank and Gaza, the Philippines, Eastern Europe. A BBC report described the situation in Europe’s poorest country—homeland of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman—where 90 percent of the people earn less than $2 a day: “Hundreds of Israelis have created a production line that starts in the villages of Moldova, where men today are walking around with one kidney.”
In China not long ago an Israeli paid a broker $100,000 for a kidney transplant from an 18-year-old girl. She herself received $5,000, and died following surgery. In Brazil a legislative commission found that Israeli traffickers no longer were content with just kidneys; they had begun inquiring into additional body parts—lungs, livers and corneas.
In her testimony, Scheper-Hughes pointed out that “The sale of human organs and tissues requires that certain disadvantaged individuals, populations, and even nations have been reduced to the role of ”suppliers.’ It is a scenario in which only certain bodies are broken, dismembered, fragmented, transported, processed, and sold in the interests of a more socially advantaged population…of receivers.”
In a 2008 lecture Scheper-Hughes discussed the motivations of Israeli traffickers. One was greed, she explained. The other was “revenge, restitution, reparation for the Holocaust.” She said some Israeli brokers and doctors had told her: “It’s kind of ”˜an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ We’re going to get every single kidney and liver and heart that we can. The world owes it to us.”
At times traffickers coerce reluctant sellers. Levy Izhak Rosenbaum, the alleged trafficker recently arrested in an FBI sweep in New Jersey, reportedly carried a gun; when a potential organ seller wanted to back out, Rosenbaum would use his finger to simulate firing at the person’s head. Rosenbaum, believed to be part of a ring centered in Israel, is the first case of trafficking to be prosecuted in the U.S.
More often organ theft involves dead bodies—or those alleged to be dead.
Israel’s very first successful heart transplant, in fact, used a stolen heart.
In 1968 Avraham Sadegat unexpectedly died two days after being hospitalised for a stroke. When his family was able to retrieve his body (the hospital initially refused to release it) they found his chest covered with bandages—odd, they thought, for a stroke victim. Upon removing the bandages they discovered that the heart was missing.
During this time, the press was announcing Israel’s first heart transplant. The family began to raise questions, but the hospital denied any connection. After the family raised a media furor, petitioned three cabinet ministers, and signed a document that they would not sue, the hospital finally admitted it had used Sadegat’s heart.
An Israeli newspaper quoted Sadegat’s tearful wife: “From the moment he entered the hospital, they apparently saw him only as a potential source of organs and not as a man in need of treatment. They only thought about how to do the deed without us knowing.” Sadegat’s medical condition pre-organ removal is unclear. According to an Israeli media report, “Once a heart stops beating, it is no longer fit for transplantation.”
Sadegat’s family was Israeli. Had they been Palestinian, it is doubtful they would have been able to force a hospital confession—and suggestions that the first Israeli heart transplant utilised a stolen organ would, quite likely, be termed blood libels.
YEHUDA HISS, KEEPER OF THE MORGUE
Perhaps one of the most long-term and high-level cases of organ theft concerns Dr. Yehuda Hiss, Israel’s chief pathologist and, from 1988 to 2004, director of Israel’s state morgue, the Abu Kabir Institute of Forensic Medicine.
One of the first indications of malfeasance occurred in 1998 and concerned a Scottish tourist named Alisdair Sinclair, who died under questionable circumstances after being taken into Israeli custody.
His family brought his body home and found that it had been autopsied. They commissioned a second autopsy at Glasgow University and discovered that Alisdair’s heart and a tiny throat bone, the hyoid, were missing. The British Embassy filed a complaint with Israel.
A heart was then sent to Scotland, but when the family requested a DNA test to confirm its identity, Hiss refused, citing prohibitive cost. DNA tests were eventually conducted but proved inconclusive. According to several reports, a researcher had put in a request for a hyoid bone around the time of Sinclair’s death and eventually received a bill for shipping costs.
Over the following years Hiss was often the centre of accusations. An Israeli newspaper published an investigative report charging that diverse body parts—“legs, thighs, ovaries, breasts and testicles”—had been removed without permission and sold to medical institutions. The bodies were stuffed with broomsticks and cotton wool.
Although government investigations confirmed the main facts, little was done, and complaints continued—often from parents of dead Israeli soldiers. Finally, in 2004, Israel’s health minister removed Hiss as director of the morgue, while retaining him as Israel’s chief pathologist.
Hiss had been involved in previous controversies concerning the Israeli government. In one he was suspected of falsifying a DNA test in an investigation into the “Yemenite Children Affair,” in which a thousand children of immigrants disappeared. (Many believe that some, at least, were adopted out, for pay.) Hiss has also been accused of falsifying evidence to the commission investigating the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
For decades Palestinians have charged Israel with taking organs from Palestinians its soldiers wounded or killed.
In her subcommittee testimony Scheper-Hughes stated, “Human rights groups in the West Bank complained to me of tissue and organs stealing of slain Palestinians by Israeli pathologists at the national Israeli legal medical institute in Tel Aviv.”
A 1990 article in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, for Middle East Affairsreported “widespread anxiety over organ thefts which has gripped Gaza and the West Bank since the intifada began in December of 1987,” and quoted a forensic physician: “There are indications that…organs, especially eyes and kidneys, were removed from the bodies during the first year or year and a half.”
Such statements were largely ignored, often portrayed as anti-Semitic exaggeration. According to The Forward magazine, however, the Israeli government corroborated them in 2001. The Forward reports that an investigation into Hiss revealed that he “seemed to view every body that ended up in his morgue, whether Israeli or Palestinian, as fair game for organ harvesting.”
Over the years a great many Palestinian bodies have “ended up” in the Israeli morgue.
Israeli forces have frequently taken custody of Palestinians they have wounded or killed. Sometimes the bodies were kept in Israel, buried in unidentified graves in what are known as “cemeteries of numbers.” In other cases they were returned late at night days later with crudely stitched naval-to-chin incisions, and Israel requiring the bereaved families to bury their children, husbands, and brothers immediately—sometimes with the electricity shut off—and Israeli soldiers overseeing the funeral.
In 2005 an Israeli soldier described a military doctor who gave “medics lessons” using the body of a Palestinian killed by Israeli forces. Haaretz reports: “The soldier said that the Palestinian’s body had been riddled with bullets and that some of his internal organs had spilled out. The doctor pronounced the man dead and then ”˜took out a knife and began to cut off parts of the body. He explained the various parts to us—the membrane that covers the lungs, the layers of the skin, the liver. ”˜I didn’t say anything because I was still new in the army. Two of the medics moved away, and one of them threw up. It was all done very brutally. It was simply contempt for the body.’”
Palestinians, of course, are an unusually vulnerable population. Human rights reports have documented a situation in which Palestinians have few real rights: Israeli forces have killed civilians with impunity, imprisoned massive numbers without charges or trials, abused prisoners, and strip-searched children. And just as Palestinians have little ability to protect their bodies when they’re living, they’re equally unable to prevent their desecration when they’re dead. By Israel’s own admission, Israeli authorities cut open Palestinian corpses without permission of the families, without public transparency, and without, it appears, normal autopsy reports.
At the same time, some Israelis hold extremist views regarding organ extraction. In 1996 Jewish Week reported that Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, a leader of the Lubavitch sect of Judaism and the dean of a religious Jewish school in a West Bank settlement, had stated: “If a Jew needs a liver, can you take the liver of an innocent non-Jew passing by to save him? The Torah would probably permit that.”
Ginsburgh elaborated: “Jewish life has infinite value. There is something infinitely more holy and unique about Jewish life than non-Jewish life.”
While the Israeli government briefly arrested Ginsburgh, and most Israelis decry such beliefs, an Israeli scholar on Jewish scriptural views and ethnic chauvinism said: “The sad thing is, these statements are in our books.” He pointed out that while such Talmudic texts were “purely theoretical” at the time they were written, now they’re being cited “in circumstances where Jews have a state and are empowered.”
Dr. A. Clare Brandabur, an American professor, writes that information in the Swedish article resonated with reports she heard during the first intifada.
She described interviewing the head of the Red Crescent in Gaza, mentioning “reports of shootings of Palestinian children at times when there were no ”˜clashes’ going on—a solitary 6-year-old entering his schoolyard in the morning with his book-bag on his back. The soldiers abducted the wounded child at gunpoint, then his body would be returned a few days later having undergone an ”˜autopsy at Abu Kabir Hospital.’”
She asked the director “if he had considered the possibility that these killings were being done for organ transplant, since…it is not allowed to take Jewish organs to save a Jewish life, but it is allowed to take the organs of non-Jews to save Jewish lives.”
He had “suspected such things,” he replied, “but since they had no access to the records of Abu Kabir Hospital, there was no way to verify these suspicions.”
The Swedish newspaper’s call for an investigation into Israel’s treatment of Palestinian bodies is now being echoed by others. Such an investigation could dispel inaccurate suspicions, absolve the innocent, and discover the guilty.
Israel and its powerful advocates abroad are doing their best to prevent that from happening.
Alison Weir is executive director of If Americans Knew. An Internet petition calling for an investigation can be viewed by clicking this link. An expanded and footnoted version of this article can be viewed on the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs’ Web site.