Playing the Blood Libel Card

Ha’aretz:

(An) Italy-based group of researchers studied Israel’s use of ammunition and said the population of the Gaza Strip is “in danger.” It based the claim on soil analysis of four bomb craters. “It is essential to intervene at once to limit the effects of the contamination on people, animals and cultivation,” the researchers stated…

“Our study indicates an anomalous presence of toxic elements in the soil,” (the committee’s spokesperson) stated. This included metals that “can cause tumors and problems with fertility, and they can have serious effects on newborns, like deformities and genetic pathologies.”

The article continues:

Professor Gerald Steinberg, founder of the Jerusalem-based, non-governmental Monitor organization, said the study did not present enough evidence to support its claim… (He) said the committee’s “accusations are designed to stigmatize Israel and erase the context of mass terror.” He said he considers the accusations “a modern form of blood libel.”

Dr. Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress had a similar reaction:

“This so-called research is eerily reminiscent of ancient blood libels against the Jewish people, when rumors were spread about Jews poisoning wells” … “Today we are seeing a recurrence of all the worst excesses of anti-Semitism and diatribes that we perhaps naively thought had remained in the Dark Ages.”

I don’t know if the Italian scientists’ research is accurate or not, but I do know this: we Jews are becoming much too fond of shouting “blood libel” for political purposes.

Not long ago, of course, the epithet was directed at Judge Richard Goldstone. I’m also reminded of another recent news story, in which a Swedish newspaper made the ghoulish claim that Israel was killing Palestinians to harvest their organs. Israel’s outrage was inevitably swift:

“This is an anti-Semitic blood libel against the Jewish people and the Jewish state. The Swedish government cannot remain apathetic,” said Israel’s Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz.

“We know the origins of these claims. In medieval times, there were claims that the Jews use the blood of Christians to bake their Matzas for Passover. The modern version now is that the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) soldiers use organs of Palestinians to make money.”

When I first heard this news, I was also outraged by the allegations. Then I read last month that a former head of an Israeli forensic institute admitted that forensic pathologists did indeed illegally harvest organs from bodies, including Palestinian bodies, in the 1990s.

According to reports there was no proof that individuals were actually killed for their organs – but as I continue to read up on this incident, I’ve become further mortified to learn that NGOs have long considered Israel to be among the top purveyors of illegal organ-trafficking in the world. Will we take these kinds of reports seriously or will we simply accuse these organizations of blood libel as well?

While there is still no lack of irrational hatred directed at Jews, I believe Israel does the Jewish people no good every time its leaders invoke the spectre of anti-Semitism to deflect criticism. At the end of the day, which is worse: the very real scourge of anti-Jewish prejudice or the cynical accusation of blood libel to cover up potential crimes of our own?

13 thoughts on “Playing the Blood Libel Card

  1. It is probably true that modern warfare leaves a toxic legacy. One of the candidates for the source of Gulf war syndrome was exposure to heavy metals.

  2. “I don’t know if the Italian scientists’ research is accurate or not, but I do know this: we Jews are becoming much too fond of shouting “blood libel” for political purposes”
    Who are “we Jews”? It’s this kind of unfounded generalization that causes unfounded prejudice and leads to “blood libel” type accusations. I don’t think it’s useful to replace one unfounded accusation with another even if the accusation comes from one of “we Jews”.
    Also, if you don’t know if the Italian scientists’ research is accurate, why spread it around? Isn’t doing that the essence of Lashon Hara?

  3. boris,

    I’ll let Brant respond to your first point if he chooses. With regard to your second, however, by that logic we should not be discussing global warming in terms of human causation, for if multi-national corporations are not cutting short the life-expectancy of the human race, we will be wrongly maligning them by spreading these ideas.

    I don’t think discussing a scientific study is the same as discussing hearsay rumors. One of the nice things about quantifiable data is that you can you can support or disprove them. If you don’t believe NWRC’s analysis of molybdenum, tungsten, and mercury levels is suspect, you can refute the results and offer an alternative analysis or call for another group of independent scientists to investigate.

    I am not the type of person to get into a panic over every new study covered on the evening news (actually I’m not the type to even watch the evening news…), but if “[t]hose metals can cause tumours and problems with fertility, and they can have serious effects on newly born babies, like deformities and genetic pathologies,” shouldn’t we err on the side of caution and try to prevent that from occurring?

  4. It would be useful to trace this story back to its origins, so that we could know exactly what is under discussion. For example, if the Italian researchers referenced in Ha’aretz spoke about the use of depleted uranium in Israeli munitions, which has been documented by Israeli peace activists, that would be one way of taking this allegation out of the realm of ideological claims and counter-claims about blood libel … like many charges about Israeli behavior, it could be echoed and redoubled by all of the evidence about the use of depleted uranium in U.S. munitions …

  5. “by that logic we should not be discussing global warming in terms of human causation, for if multi-national corporations are not cutting short the life-expectancy of the human race, we will be wrongly maligning them by spreading these ideas.” Matt, Matt,
    Matt, That’s not my logic. That’s not logical at all.
    Brant is talking about a lone study he read about whose findings he rightly doesn’t feel qualified to judge.
    There’s a lot more consensus in the scientific community about global warming than one Italian study.
    Let me say that I agree we should “err on the side of caution” to prevent deformities in new born babies.

    • Boris,

      Re the “lone” Italian study: like the science of global warming, the toxic effects of warfare have been well documented by the scientific community.

      Should I have refrained from commenting on this study since I am not a scientist myself (and thus not qualified to validate or invalidate the findings personally)? I’d say that even if lay people are unqualified to evaluate the technical validity of scientific findings, it is certainly not lashon hara (“spreading gossip”) to merely draw attention to scientific studies for the sake of meaningful public debate.

      I would claim that this study – and others like it – is eminently worthy of our consideration. I would go farther and say that since they have potentially profound public health implications, we have a responsibility to share these kinds of findings widely.

  6. What is the meaningful public debate? Is there any debate that war is toxic? Is there any debate that Israel is at war? Is there any debate that bombs are harmful?
    Ok. Tuches affen tisch:
    Is it helpful or hurtful for you to use a blog as a platform to amplify criticism of Israel?
    The answer of course is, “It depends.”
    This time I think it was hurtful.

  7. From the New Weapons Committee 12/17/09:

    (http://www.newweapons.org/files/pressrelease_nwrc_20091216_eng.pdf)

    “The study has compared the levels of concentration of metals in the craters with those indicated in
    a report on the presence of metals in the Gaza Strip soil, based on samples collected from 170
    locations in 2005. The analyses have shown anomalous concentrations of these metals inside the
    craters, indicating a contamination of the soil. This, given the precarious living conditions, especially
    in refugee camps, increases the risk of exposure to toxic substances, through the skin, through the
    lungs and through ingestion.”

    I looked at the data spread sheet attached to the press release. Assuming the data is correct:

    1. Who goes into bomb craters? How do increased amounts of metals really effect the general population who are not in the bomb craters? Are metals in the soil really inhaled? What levels of exposure are needed to absorb metals through the skin? Who eats soil from the base of a bomb craters. Note: They are not talking about underground water contamination. Any discussion of that would be hypothetical conjecture.

    2. They do not have controls for bomb craters created by countries other than Israel. They used historical data to compare the normal soil samples in Gaza. I am sure that their are studies of metals in non-Israeli bomb craters which are not discussed. Is there a political reason for leaving out such an obvious flaw?

    • Thanks for this comment, Harry. This is exactly what I meant before by “meaningful public debate.”

      Re your first point: these bombs were dropped into densely populated areas. As bombs spread material over a wide surface area, it would be logical to conclude that the chemicals in these weapons could have significant impact on the surrounding population. In the studies research on levels of tungsten and mercury, for instance, the researchers comment:

      Both… are rare in nature and the fact that they were found in one of the craters means that they were released by the explosion of a bomb. This spreads the metals within an unknown range and it might have caused a contamination of the water, of the soil, and of the cultivations.

      To your second point: as I understand it, the study used soil samples from before the war as a control sample. It would seem to me that one could draw compelling conclusions by comparing metal concentrations from 2005 with levels in 2009.

      Even if neither of us are geologists, I think this is an enormously important conversation. To return to the original point of my post, I believe this is a much more helpful response to the study than simply to cry “blood libel!” I believe this kind of rhetoric is (to use Boris’ term) what is truly “harmful” to Israel’s case.

  8. Conjecture: “As bombs spread material over a wide surface area, it would be logical to conclude that the chemicals in these weapons could have significant impact on the surrounding population.”
    They only studied the bomb craters.

    Conjecture: “might have caused a contamination of the water, of the soil, and of the cultivations.” They should have looked at this if they want to comment.

    Conjecture is not science.

    By the way, if the study was worthwhile, they would have published it in a peer reviewed journal, as do legitimate scientists. They would not publish it on the internet and publicize it with press releases.

    “It would seem to me that one could draw compelling conclusions by comparing metal concentrations from 2005 with levels in 2009. ” You can, but it a flaw of the study. My point was that they should look at historical data of other bomb craters and see if the Israeli bomb craters are different that other (non-Israeli) bomb craters. This is the control that was not done and it is the obvious, serious flaw.

    The study is seriously flawed–even a simple Dermatologist can see this. To publish an obviously flawed study and make accusations against Israel is sort of a blood libel.

    Also, regarding the Swedish article Aftonbladet op-ed from Sweden by Donald Bostrom, the Israelis addressed this in 2000. It occurred in the early 1990’s. It was wrong, but it was not specifically directed toward Palestinians. Bostrom is wrong to bring it up again in 12/2009 as a new and on going issue. I think this is a bit of blood libel.

    It is also a blood libel when:
    — Egypt has a series on the “Elders of Zion.”
    –The Turks show a series in which Israeli soldiers shoot children at point blank range.
    –Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) writes a dissertation as a grad student in Moscow denying the Holocaust (He later said he new it was false).
    –Dreyfus is accused because he is Jewish.
    –Mendel Baylis is accused of killing Christian children to make matzah.

    It is wrong to perpetuate false information to support your position and for propaganda purposes. Call it what you like, but if you call it a blood libel, you are not far from the truth.

    • Harry,

      I don’t dispute your comment that the study contains conjecture – to this I would say that it raises enough important questions to merit further study – especially because it has critical public health implications.

      I’m not sure I accept your point that “legitimate scientists” would only publish findings in a peer journal and not through a public press release. Yes, it is clear that the New Weapons Committee has a human rights agenda – and this certainly needs to be taken into account in determining the objectivity of their research – but that does not make them “illegitimate” as scientists. (If that was the case, we’d be forced to discount the work of Doctors Without Borders, Physicians for Human Rights, the Union of Concerned Scientists, etc.)

      Part of the concern of the New Weapons Committee (as well as other international observers) is the possibility that Israel has been using new “experimental” weapons in Gaza. There have been concerning reports in particular about the use of DIME (Dense Inert Metal Explosive) bombs – an explosive that contains Tungsten, causes uniquely grievous injuries and can have extremely toxic after-effects.

      There have been allegations as early as 2006 that Israel was using Gaza as a “lab” for testing DIME bombs – though Israel denies it, health care workers in Gaza have reported injuries that are extremely unusual and are consistent with DIME bomb effects. Is this conjecture? Yes. Does it merit further investigation? I would say absolutely. It certainly doesn’t do Israel’s case any good when its leaders and supporters attempt to shut down any further discussion by shouting “blood libel.”

      You say the study is flawed – and I’m sure it is. But is it so flawed as to merit no further investigation whatsoever? Given the stakes, I’m personally not comfortable saying yes.

      (You can click here for a very substantive piece of investigative reporting on Israel’s potential use of DIME bombs in Gaza. While I find it extremely disturbing, I don’t consider it blood libel.)

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