A summary of a most serious event and how Israel finely
took responsibility and stopped the organ harvesting
By Donald Boström
I immediately recognized him, and his eyes showed in a blink of a second that he realized I was the “Swedish journalist”. In front of me in the elevator stood the Israeli Colonel Lieutenant and pathologist, Chen Kugel, the brave whistleblower from Tel Aviv. For more than a decade he tried to stop the organ harvesting in Israel from within the system. Now he turned his glance at me. In media my article in the largest circulated newspaper in Scandinavia was painted as blood libel, when I for the first time outside Israel publicly linked Israel with organ harvesting.
We were both invited, together with professor Nancy Scheper-Huges, to the Google trafficking conference in Los Angeles. Others were invited to talk about sex, weapons and drug trafficking.
Despite his position as nr 2 in the hierarchy of the Israeli National Institute of Forensic Medicine, he encountered great difficulties during the period after his disclosure of how organs were taken from bodies for different purposes without consent from their relatives. In the end, he was driven away from the institute, where he for 15 years had witnessed these irregularities. I myself was described with misgivings and falsehoods in such a remarkable way that the atmosphere finally become so upset that people promised to take my life, or in one way or another destroy it. It was a hyper-sensitive affair, without any doubts.
Certainly, both Chen Kugel and I had pulled our lances to stop the organ harvesting, and should be on the same side. But Chen Kugel was not only Colonel Lieutenant in the Israeli Army, in the reserve today, but also a Zionist and supporter of the ruling Likud Party in Israel. His loyalty with his country and government was beyond doubt. What was he supposed to think of me, as I embarrassed his government in front of the whole world?
Rarely an elevator had felt so big and desolate as we stood in separate corners before I took the courage and reached out my hand to him and said "I appreciate what you've done". What could I expect? Probably, he would just neglect my gesture, or give a spicy comment without meeting my extended hand. His powerful physiognomy indicated that a punch in my face could be an alternative as well, as the former Israel Minister of Finance, Yair Lapid, had promised to do in an editorial (“I will punch Boström in his face”). But the sympathetic face in the elevator broke up in a soft smile as he gave me his hand and replied, "I appreciate what you've done".
Since then, we continued the communication and when we later meet in Tel Aviv over a glass of wine and a bite, Chen thanked me once again for contributing to stop the organ harvesting. My wife who sat next to us at the table meant that Chen Kugel must be an angel. Donald, she said when we left the restaurant, "Chen Kugel is an angel", I was inclined to agree.
Professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes at Berkeley University in USA, and Professor Emeritus Meira Weiss, at Hebrew University in Israel, both researched and investigated the matter for years, also suffered from those who wanted to keep the activities in the basement of the Israeli National Forensic Institute in the outskirts of Tel Aviv as a well-kept secret.
And finally, we could all meet, there was an implausible collaboration among us all - Chen Kugel, a pathologist from Israel, Meira Weiss a professor in anthropology from Israel, Nancy Scheper-Hughes professor from Berkely University, USA, and me, a Swedish journalist. In various constellations, we met, we skyped, we wrote, and though we all had different perspectives, our joint efforts succeed in stopping the long-term organ harvesting and reformed the policy of the Forensic Institute in Israel.
It began in August 2009. In Scandinavia’s largest newspaper, I asked the question: Does Israel harvest organs from Palestinians without consent from their families? It was a legitimate question. During a period of time a large number of young Palestinian men disappeared only to be returned back by IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces, five days later. It happened in the middle of the night, and the young men were dead and with their chests ripped open. I spent weeks investigating the matter. Hidden in the darkness of the night I witnessed how military vehicles delivered a dead body, chest ripped open.
In fact, according to sources working at the institute where the irregularities took place, an extensive organ harvesting were conducted at the Israeli Forensic Institute in Tel Aviv during a period of at least 24 years.
"At the institute, everything possible was taken from the deceased without permission from Palestinians, Israelis, tourists, guest workers and even our own soldiers," the director of Israel Forensic Institute Chen Kugel told me.
"Organs were actually sold to anyone that was interested. There was a price list where each organ had a tariff. For example hip bone cost was 300 NIS. Liver cost was 220 NIS. Later, the explanation was that these sums of money were paid for the extra work that should have been invested in "harvesting" the organ. An explanation that looks a bit strange since anyway, during the autopsy organs are taken out of the body, so what extra work do they have here?"
Not only the major organs like heart, liver, brain, kidneys, lungs were taken from the bodies, but also eyes, corneas, skin, glands, joints, tendons and long boons, femur etc. Some parts were used for transplantation, other body parts and tissues were used for research or for medical students, depending on who the client was. To hide these unauthorized activities eyelids were glued together, stomachs filled with toilet paper and femur replaced with broom shafts. Skin was only taken from the back, where discovery is more difficult.
I paid 200 dollars for a list of names, printed out from a computer, from a very nervous person in a dark basement in a certain building in Jerusalem. All killed Palestinians that year where listed – when, where and how they were killed. Name, number and villages, and most important of all, whom they sent to Abu Kabir Forensic Institute for autopsy, and suspected theft of organs. I marked their names and villages, rented a car and spent another week traveling through the West bank and Gaza, interviewing families of the victims from the list, in villages and camps. They all had the same story to tell.
In the turbulent Knesset Meeting no. 326, July 3, 2002, Mr. Shaul Yaalom, a Knesset member from the Mafdal Party, was furious and said:” it is [moral] bankruptcy, bias, patent dishonesty of the Justice system in Israel. The report makes it clear that they harvested organs for transplantation, research and trade”. Israel's most widespread newspaper published revealing facts, and doctors and pathologists who protested against the irregularities were fired. Nothing helped. The government of Israel kept a classified report confirming the accusations of organs and tissue plundering. The same documents described the financial accounts at the institute as falsified as well.
Chen Kugel and Nancy Scheper Hughes wrote together in an article:
The moral collapse at Israel’s National Forensic Institute at Abu Kabir led by the director and state appointed senior pathologist- Prof. Hiss, was complete, lacking any vestige of human decency in their official stewardship and protection of the bodies of the dead. The abuses-as we will see - became much easier by the military conflict during and between the two intifadas which produced abundant supplies of dead bodies from Palestinian militants, IDF soldiers, and victims of suicide bombings and military-civil emergencies.
Palestinians who live in the Palestinian authority area were easy target too, since there was no inspection of their bodies by a representative of them or any burial service personnel inside the borders of Israel.
When the Swedish daily newspaper Aftonbladet on August 17, 2009 published an article where a number of Palestinian families accused Israel of stealing organs from their sons after they were killed, the reaction was immediate. The global explosion of my article caused a political crisis between the Swedish and Israeli governments and almost cost my life.
However, the Israeli government, fully aware of the activities at the institute, chose to not, for an inexplicable reason take the opportunity and stop it all. Instead, they started a campaign with the message "claiming that organs are stolen in Israel is a medieval anti-Semitic blood libel". “Something like that has never happened”.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government demanded the Swedish government to condemn the article, and the newspaper to retract it, and me to apologize. However, the Swedish government referred to the democracy and freedom of press we practice in our country, and our minister of foreign affairs, Mr Carl Bildt, added, since he was not the editor in chief, he was not the one to decide what to publish or not, and the newspaper stood firm behind the article and said that the questions are justified and should rather have a proper answer from Israel.
It was a difficult situation. Without Professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Chen Kugel and Meira Wiess and their courage it could have ended up very badly. The inflammatory article touched a nerve in Israel. It had been a very sensitive issue in Israel for a long time, that was handled with secret and classified reports issued only in Hebrew. Inside the Forensic Institute many complaints were, since years, directed at director Yehuda Hiss, complaints from Israelis as well as from Palestinians. The over-reaction from the Israeli Government rather inspired to further investigation of the matter than to be silent.
Professor Emeritus Meira Weiss, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, were concerned by the Israeli Government's systematical denial. After many years of research at the institute, she knew what was correct and what was not correct in the debate. Together with some colleagues she contacted the ministry of foreign affairs, saying: "Get off that high horse, everything in Boström's story is the plain truth. The Institute for Forensic Medicine harvests Palestinian organs. The response from the spokesperson's/seniors at the ministry of foreign affairs was: 'this conversation never happened'. "
The sentences above are now published by Professor Weiss. She is surprised that Swedish media bought the Israeli government's, version of the story, not the version from the investigating journalist. Not the least, they did not do their job by investigating the matter themselves. There were documents, protocol and witnesses waiting for them.
After the heavy avalanche around Aftonbladet's article, Professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes from Berkeley University decided to published recordings where the head of the Forensic Institute at that time, Yehuda Hiss, acknowledged that they had harvested organs and body parts from Arabs without permission. This became breaking news on CNN, BBC and around the world. That clear evidence pressed Israeli authorities to admit. It was just a few days before Christmas Nancy Scheper-Hughes’s interview was broadcasted and the worst of the massive uproar faded away. It turned totally quiet from one day to another. The organ harvesting of Palestinian young men was finally confirmed by Israeli Ministry of Health and members of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). They admitted having stolen organs from Palestinians, the enemy.
That year my whole family gathered in my sister’s house and while everyone enjoyed Christmas together, I was able to relax for the first time in 97 days. It did not take many minutes before I slept sweetly in my sister’s and her husband’s house while the rest of the family were eating and celebrating Christmas.
The unthinkable and impossible had sadly become true and real. However, since then, those having accused me and other messengers for lies and anti-Semitism, instead invented new not true accusations in order to save their cause.
After three months of campaign against my articles’ “distasteful” claims that organs and tissues were stolen in Israel, they changed view and all of a sudden acknowledged the organ harvesting, but instead claimed that the article was still lying anyway by stating that Israeli soldiers shot Palestinians deliberately with the purpose of carving out their organs. This campaign message was simultaneously spread across the world media.
Something like that is of course not written in the article, and no one has claimed it. But this was a strategy to draw attention away from the fact that authorities finelly had acknowledged the illicit organ harvesting that had been going on for decades. The theft of organs was no longer the worst thing that existed for the government of Israel and some media. The worst now was that a journalist had told the world about it.
The director of the Israeli Forensic Institute, Chen Kugel, and Professor Meira Weiss, both express that an incorrect translation circulated of Boström's article, a translation saying that Israeli soldiers shot Palestinians in order to steal their organs. Both Kugel and Weiss reject that allegation, meaning that Boström's original article describes that matter in a correct way.
And Nancy Scheper-Hughs and Chen Kugel wrote:
When the media published the investigative reports about the organ theft at the institute of forensic medicine most of the public was outrages and furious towards prof. Hiss. When Donald Bostrom published claims of Palestinians about organ theft in the institute of forensic medicine - then the fury went towards Donald Bostrom... (may be because the palestinians claimed that the IDF soldiers killed Palestinians in order to trade their body organs - this were of course wrong accusations, but again - involvement of the army in the story).
My story in the Swedish newspaper had started a chain reaction that was already in motion inside Israel. There were already several brave people in Israel that tried to stop the immoral activities. The most important person is pathologist Chen Kugel, the very brave whistleblower that has suffered a lot for his courage. Meira Weiss, the Hebrew University professor, also did an important contribution, and finally there was a collaboration among us all — Chen Kugel, Meira Weiss, Nancy Scheper-Hughes and me, in various constellations.
The end of the illegal operation came after residents of Tel Aviv demonstrated outside the forensic institute when the police revealed a container of body and body parts from 8,200 people. Organs that were then returned to relatives for burial. Three years after Aftonbladet's publication, the activity could finally be stopped.
It was an interesting fact that it was Israelis who defended the article, people who worked and made research at the Institute where the organ harvesting took place. Unlike those participating in the debate in Sweden without any knowledge of the matter.
In an email Chen Kugel expressed his thanks for the article:
"Donald, you can say that you have actually contributed to making the change. You were not only reporting about the situation, but also helped for a new situation to happen. You would also be able to write about this letter of mine and say you helped the person that exposed Dr Yehuda Hiss's corruption to replace him and correct many fallacies in the forensic system in Israel.”
Thank you so much.”
Chen Kugel was the bravest whistleblower, struggling against the irregularities at the Forensic Institute. For that he was severely punished. Without Chen Kugel the shady operations with organs still would have continued.
Below is the text Meira Weiss published in Israel after my speech at the Berkeley University, San Francisco, USA:
"Then another person entered the fray. Donald Boström, a Swedish journalist who at one point set the country ablaze. Having been on the road for years, covering different places around the world for his newspaper, he spent long stints in Muslim countries like Afghanistan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, and reported complaints made by Palestinian families alleging that Israel’s National Institute of Forensic Medicine was harvesting organs from their loved ones’ bodies. One of his Swedish pieces had somehow made it to the New York Times (2009) and turmoil promptly ensued in Israel. Lieberman, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, demanded that the Swedish government apologize, called for a boycott of Ikea, and turned Boström into an anti-Semite demon. Boström tried to offer his position in front of the Israel Press Council, but was driven out by Yair Lapid, a senior reporter at the time, who even threatened to “beat him up”.
It was during that time that I realized I must take action. Along with H. (my confidante at the Institute for Forensic Medicine), I called /a senior at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and explained it was with good will that we spoke. “Get off that high horse,” we said. “Everything in Boström’s story is the plain truth. The Institute for Forensic Medicine harvests Palestinians’ organs.” The spokesperson’s/senior’s reply was “this conversation never happened.” I was upset. The State of Israel was hounding a journalist, accusing him of Antisemitism and almost causing a diplomatic crisis with Sweden - and never for a moment stopped to ask: could it be true? And the fact that the press colluded with this demonization of the messenger without looking into the details? At the time being, Boström is being hounded in Sweden too for plunging Sweden into an Anti-Semite frenzy, and is living a nightmare that only someone who has been there, like me, can understand. But I never called him. Professor Nancy Scheper–Hughes from Berkeley University was braver than me, giving him a call to confirm his claims, based on my research, and extending her full support. Presenting the article where he covered the scandal at the first day of the conference, (May the 1, 2017) Boström opened by saying “Nancy saved my life.”
I know it’s true because she also saved mine.
Professor Emeritus Meira Weiss
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Anthropology of Medicine, the Body, and Science
Chair, Israel Anthropology Association, 2001-2004
Chair, Gender Studies, Lafer Center, 1998-2002
Rose Chair in the Sociology of Medicine, 2004-
Until now there are 164 law suits or legal procedures against the institute. Soldiers are only about 5% of the bodies that are treated at the institute, but the percentage of law suits by soldiers families against the institute are about 36% of all law suits (58). I don't know of any palestinian that went to court for this. I know about 2 cases of Israeli Arabs though Chen Kugel said.
REGARDING THE RELIGIOUS ASPECT IN ISRAEL CONCERNING ORGAN HARVESTING
After many years of extensive organ harvesting without consent from the families the question is what, besides the law, serves as a guideline for forensic medicine in the Israeli society. I asked Chen Kugel, the director of the Forensic Institute I Israel, his answer was the following:
A SHORT SUMMARY
The Jewish belief in the inviolability of the human body is reflected in its attitude to postmortem examinations. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 47a) asserts that the biblical imperative of speedy burial (Deuteronomy 21:22-23) is based upon the prohibition of disgracing a corpse. The scope of this prohibition extends beyond delayed burial. Scripture proscribes the inflicting of any form of disgrace upon a corpse. In general, this includes the disfigurement of the body as a result of postmortem dissection (autopsy).
Apart from the general prohibition against autopsies, which derives from our abhorrence of bodily disfigurement, there is a special prohibition against failure to bury the body in its entirety. If, after autopsy, for example, part of the body is excised and not buried, [according to one source] it is as if no burial at alltook place (Jerusalem Talmud, Nazir 7:1). The prohibition against the performance of autopsies, however, is not absolute. An exception is made if the autopsy may directly contribute to saving the life of another patient who is currently awaiting treatment.
L. Greenberg National Institute of Forensic Medicine
Abu Kabir, Tel Aviv, Israel