24 August, 2009

The "blood-libel" row from a Swedish horizon

I've been following the Sweden-Israel organ theft / blood-libel row in disbelief for the past week. I resisted commenting on it so far because I just found the whole affair too ridiculous and blown out of proportion by media - in Israel, Sweden and elsewhere. I mean, who even cares what Avigdor Lieberman says? And who, except hardcore zionists, is not an anti-semite according to his world view?

Still, as a Swedish journalist I've been receiving a lot of questions about this from foreign friends, so I might as well share a few thoughts on the matter.

As for the controversial article itself, I found it unconvincing at best, sensationalist and irresponsible at worst - but definitely not anti-semitic. First of all it's important to remember that it is not strictly a news report, but more like an opinion piece. The author doesn't explicitly claim he actually knows organ theft took place, but recounts things he saw and stories he heard on the occupied Palestinian territories in the early 90's, makes a link to a recent organ trade scandal involving the US and Israel, and calls for an investigation. 

Nevertheless, I partially agree with Matthew Cassel at The Electronic Intifada who objects to the article because it gives Israel an opportunity to undermine well-founded reports about serious human rights violations. Here's an excerpt of his article (read it all here):

"Unlike Bostrom's reporting, when most Palestinian human rights organizations or other journalists have uncovered Israeli violations, they are sure to provide well-documented evidence to prove beyond a doubt that such violations were in fact committed. Even though Israel has made it very difficult for both Palestinian and international journalists and human rights workers to practice inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip, many have risked their lives to see that evidence of Israel's crimes is uncovered and reported.

/---/ The fact that Bostrom did not offer evidence for his organ theft claims has given Israel an enormous propaganda gift. Because he offered nothing more than conjecture and hearsay, Israel has launched a major campaign casting itself as an aggrieved victim of "blood libel." This allows Israel to distract attention from the mountains of evidence of well-documented war crimes, and even to discredit real evidence."

I'm not sure, though, that this will actually turn out as a propaganda victory for Israel in the end. The campaign against the Swedish government and Aftonbladet, the Swedish daily that published the article, looks too much like a farce to be taken seriously. It is obviously part of a desperate campaign by the right wing, ultra-nationalistic Israeli government to use any possible opportunity to distract from its own conduct on the occupied territories (especially the continuing criticism against the recent war on Gaza and expansion of settlements) and to appear strong in front of its own constituencies. 

It is extremely unlikely that the Swedish government would apologize for or condemn the article - to give in for such Israeli demands after refusing to do the same after the publication of the controversial caricatures of the prophet Mohammed would be suicide, PR-wise. The Israeli government is fully aware of this, of course, but Avigdor Lieberman doesn't want an apology - being regarded as pariah more or less everywhere, he simply wants to flex his muscles.

The Swedish government, in turn, probably isn't very concerned that this affair might hurt diplomatic relations between the two countries. Israel won't suddenly expel the Swedish military attaché from Tel Aviv, for example (if they ever did it would be extremely ironic, since withdrawal of the military attaché and an end to all military cooperation between the two countries has long been a major demand of leftist and pro-Palestinian groups in Sweden) or cancel trade deals with the European Union. 

In fact, the Swedish right-wing government may come out as a winner of this affair since it is currently seen as "standing up" against unreasonable Israeli demands, playing along with the public opinion which grew more critical of Israel during the war on Gaza, while presenting no real criticism of the continuing Israeli politics of apartheid and occupation.

In the end, I believe this affair will only hurt the image of Israel in Sweden further. I strongly suspect that a vast majority of Swedes (regardless of what they think of the Aftonbladet-article, if they even read it) view the Israeli demands as unreasonable and unworthy of a supposedly democratic state, are sick and tired of having to put up with Avigdor Liebermans Swede-bashing on TV night after night, and of Israel-supporters branding all their opponents as anti-semites (a strategy that has always carried a risk of causing a serious backlash - ever heard the story of the boy who cried wolf?)

In an ironic twist, some Israelis are now calling for a boycott of Swedish products. I'm tempted to say: Go ahead, and why don't you start with the Volvo-bulldozers used to demolish Palestinian homes in the occupied territories... And if even Israelis themselves accept boycott as a legitimate way of putting political pressure on countries whose policies we dislike, this should give a boost to the international BDS-movement and the international boycott of Israeli products.

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