NEW YORK (JTA) — A Swedish newspaper is pushing forward with its far-fetched claims that the Israeli army harvested body organs from Palestinians. But for many Israel watchers the debate has shifted to whether the Swedish government fumbled the controversy or the Israeli government went overboard with its incensed reaction.
The decision by the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet to publish the story, which included no evidence that the allegations were true, drew swift Israeli and Jewish denunciations, as well as a condemnation by Sweden’s ambassador to Israel. But then the Swedish Foreign Ministry disavowed that condemnation in the name of free speech, infuriating Israeli officials.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman charged that the Swedish government position was reminiscent of the country’s policy of neutrality toward Nazi Germany during World War II. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded a formal condemnation from the Swedes. And the Israeli Government Press Office delayed accreditation of two Aftonbladet reporters for a visit to Israel early next month by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.
For their part, Stockholm officials argued that it is not the government’s place to comment on press reports out of concern for freedom of the press.
Meanwhile, some members of Sweden’s small Jewish community said this week they were bewildered by Israel’s handling of the affair. Some Israelis also criticized their government’s response as an overreaction.
"The Israeli reaction was very harsh, and it created a storm on a diplomatic scale," Lena Ponser, president of the Official Council of Jewish Communities in Sweden, told JTA. "On the one side, it is understandable. On the other, it shifts the focus from the main issue at hand: Instead of trying to expose [the falsehood of the story], all the other papers are now supporting the freedom of press."
In an editorial, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz said Lieberman’s invocation of the Holocaust and Sweden’s neutrality during World War II caused political damage for Israel and dishonored the memory of victims of Nazism.
"The argument cheapened the Holocaust, blew the article out of proportion and caused an international uproar, pushing Sweden — which currently holds the presidency of the European Union — into an unnecessary confrontation with Israel," the editorial said. "Lieberman must understand that freedom of the press exists in Sweden — for both good journalism and bad — and that just as in Israel, the government does not dictate what is published. Its purpose is not to condemn news stories.”
The controversial article penned by freelancer Donald Boström ran on Aug. 17 in Aftonbladet, a tabloid and one of the two leading newspapers in Sweden.
In his piece, Boström tied the recent arrest of Levy-Izhak Rosenbaum, a Brooklyn Jew suspected of trying to sell a kidney, to allegations by Palestinians in the West Bank that the bodies of family members killed in clashes with Israeli forces were returned with organs missing.
This week, the newspaper followed up with another report on allegations of organ harvesting, calling on Israel to investigate the issue. The newspaper’s editor also penned a piece defending the decision to publish the stories.
Sweden’s ambassador to Israel, Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier, called the original article "shocking and appalling." But Sweden’s foreign minister later disavowed her statement on his blog, saying the government had no right to comment.
Lieberman called the report a blood libel. "The story published this week is a natural continuation of the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ and blood libels like the Beilis trial, in which Jews were accused of adding Christian children’s blood to Passover matzah," he said, according to reports.
Jewish Swedes have watched with dismay as the controversy has ballooned.
Anders Carlberg, the outgoing chairman of the Jewish Community in Gothenburg, Sweden, said Israeli officials should have responded by publishing a rebuttal to the allegations in Aftonbladet.
"The stance of the community in general is that it’s strange that this has become a government issue at all," Carlberg said. "It falls along the lines of Voltaire: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it."
In the United States, however, Jewish organizational officials were strident in calling for Sweden to condemn the report.
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, called on Bildt to embrace the statement made by Sweden’s ambassador in Tel Aviv.
"Assuming you disagreed with the article, all you had to say was that you found the report odious and welcomed the reaction of Ambassador Bonnier," Harris wrote in a letter to the Swedish foreign minister. "That would have been the right thing to do in a case that has garnered global attention."
Condemnation of the news story came from some unexpected sources, too. Matthew Cassel, a blogger for the pro-Palestinian Web site Electronic Intifada, called the Aftonbladet story "highly irresponsible" and said it “lacked credibility.”
But Cassel also said Israel was exploiting the controversy for its benefit.