Monday, December 21, 2009

Israel and Organs: A Guide for the Perplexed

When I first saw a report that Israel had admitted harvesting organs, I was confused and quite a bit worried. What exactly had happened? When was it (and was it ongoing)? Who was responsible? Who were the victims? Was their any punishment for the perpetrators? And so on.

As the story was picked up, I think I've mostly pieced together what happened. Hence, my guide for the perplexed reader, who wants to keep the story straight.

The latest iteration of this controversy came from a Swedish tabloid piece alleging that IDF troops were killing Palestinians in order to harvest their organs -- a charge bitterly denounced (including by me) as a new version of the "blood libel". The closest thing to evidence that the author had for his piece was the story of an illegal organ trade between an Israeli and a New Jersey Jewish man, apparently on the theory that any action by any Israeli or Jew anywhere is reflective of a broader hive mentality of the whole. The story exploded in the various anti-Semitic fever swamps that inhabit the globe, with Alison Weir alleging in Counterpunch that the original (medieval) blood libel was actually quite true, and Algerian officials spinning tales of transnational kidnapping operations of Arab children. Many other similar claims were raised at the same time.

In the wake of this controversy, an American academic released to an Israeli news station an interview she conducted in 2000 with an Israeli pathologist, Dr. Yehuda Hiss, who admitted in the 1990s that specialists at his hospitals did take corneas, heart valves, and skin from corpses (Israeli and Palestinian alike, but mostly Israelis, including soldiers) they were autopsying for the purpose of transplants. The practice, however, was discontinued by the end of the decade as new rules were written precisely to check these sorts of abuses.

Here's where things get a little murky. The CNN article on the story, which gives the fullest account I've seen yet, has some words to the effect that the doctors thought that the permission to do an autopsy implicitly granted them the right to take organs from the body -- though they conceded they never asked specific permission. This is belied, though, by other statements wherein the doctors indicate that they acted to cover up their offense (such as gluing eyelids shut to mask taken corneas) -- demonstrating that the doctors were at least aware that their actions may not have been entirely sanctioned by the families.

The other thing I am unclear about is the degree to which this scandal was already public knowledge. The CNN article indicates that these charges were indeed investigated, with Dr. Hiss losing his job as head of the institute in 2004 because of them (he still works at the institution).
The forensic institute at Abu Kabir, where Hiss still works, received complaints about improper practices regarding organ harvesting that culminated in an investigation and a change of management.

The current manager, Assaf Harofe Hospital, issued a statement saying, "The committee which examined the said matters have determined that there were purely managerial malfunctions, but as a result of their findings Professor Hiss lost his position as the manager of the institute." Managerial responsibility was changed and new procedures were put in place, the statement said.

What I'm not sure about is whether this investigation was known to the public at the time. Of course, it seems quite wrong at first glance that the doctors received the wrist slap of a "managerial malfunction" and demotion, but without knowing the particulars of the investigation I cannot say for sure (on the other hand, it seems quite right that a complaint was made, the practice was investigated, and then ceased after investigation). But what I'm getting at is that if a scandal that was already known to the public can be dredged up anew every five years as something shocking, horrible, and discrediting, simply by making up a seemingly connected but more extreme iteration, then nobody will ever move on from anything.

One thing that needs to be stressed, and was mentioned in both the CNN and Guardian articles, is that the original explosive allegations in the Swedish article -- that Israel was killing Palestinians for their organs -- was and remains untrue; it is, as CNN blithely put it, "a different allegation". Taking corneas from already dead patients (without regard to who the patients were -- the majority of the patients whose organs were taken appear to have been Israelis) is, of course, an entirely different animal from actively going out an killing people in order to harvest their organs. The distinction is important not to minimize the gravity of the former offense, but to prevent the revelation of the former from being blurred and merged into the latter.

Finally, as they put it at Harry's Place, "the truth is ugly, and deserved to come out no matter the consequences." But the truth remains the truth -- it is not free license to support falsehoods like the Swedish article, or feverish claims of Jewish bloodlust.

I would also ask that we resist the traps of the politics of respectability, which demand of otherized groups universal sainthood lest they all be tainted as corrupted and fallen. A federal building explodes in Oklahoma, and Timothy McVeigh is evil. A suicide bomb explodes in Tel Aviv, and Palestinians are evil. A Israeli doctor takes organs from corpses without permission, and Israelis are evil. No. Girls don't suck at math, that girl sucks at math. That doctor did wrong; that wrongdoing deserves investigation and punishment. But the hivemind doesn't exist.


Holly in Cincinnati said...

I was aware of the old Dr. Hiss Abu Kabir case but did not connect the Swedish blood libel accusation to it.

Dr. Evil said...

The Hiss story was publicized in Israel at the time, including the complaints of two families of Israeli soldiers which have died during their service and the results of the investigation. Saying that, I do not know whether the details of the investigation are in the public domain or not.

joe said...

We read about this in my Wills and Trusts class for some reason.

Anonymous said...

Actually weir's 2 footnoted articles contain a great deal of info - especially the one in the washington report on middle east affairs. By the way the one you mention only refers to the original accusations of blood libel briefly and simply quotes mainstream isreali newspapers and academics.