Israeli media first to report Haitian organ theft rumor

There is considerable speculation following the removal of Lady Jenny Tonge on 14 February from her position as health critic for the Liberal Democratic Party in the UK’s House of Lords following her statement calling for an inquiry into claims that the Israeli military stole organs during its relief work in Haiti last month.

The question I pose is not whether Tonge was wrong in her claims to The Jewish Chronicle (which I would argue she was), but where the claims originated in the first place.

As mainstream publications such as CNN and the UK’s Telegraph publish analyses of the Tonge affair, they continue to falsely claim that the accusation which Tonge repeated, that of the Israeli military stealing Haitian organs, originated in Palestinian sources, when in fact their very origin was Israeli.

The mainstream corporate media’s story goes like this: The Jewish Chronicle requested a statement from Tonge after the online publication The Palestine Telegraph, of which she is a patron, allegedly accused the Israeli military of stealing organs while conducting earthquake relief work in Haiti. On 11 February, Tonge responded to The Jewish Chronicle by commending the Israeli military’s work in the devastated country. She added that “To prevent allegations such as these — which have already been posted on YouTube — going any further, the IDF [Israeli army] and the Israeli Medical Association should establish an independent inquiry immediately to clear the names of the team in Haiti” (Simon Rocker and Martin Bright, “Tonge: Investigate IDF stealing organs in Haiti,” The Jewish Chronicle, 11 February 2010).

However, the Gaza-based Palestine Telegraph was not the first media source to publish such a statement. On 20 January, the Israeli news site YNet published a piece entitled, “ ‘Israelis Stealing Organs in Haiti,’” the title of which has since been changed (Yitzhak Benhorin, “Anti-Semitic video against Israel team in Haiti,” previously titled “’Israelis Stealing Organs in Haiti’”).

A screen shot of the original headline on YNet.

YNet plucked from obscurity a little-known YouTube video, in which a Seattle activist, who identifies as “T. West,” claims that those serving in the Israeli army are without consciences. In the video, West states that:

“We always have some [unscrupulous] in the crowd, and that includes the Israeli Defense Force … people have to be aware of personalities who are out for money … the IDF has participated in the past in stealing organ transplants of Palestinians and others. So, there is little monitoring in such a tragedy as this, so the Haitian people must watch out for their citizens as these international groups come in to assist medically and in other ways in Haiti.”

Nowhere in the video does West make a direct claim that the Israeli military is harvesting Haitian organs; rather, he invokes Jewish money stereotypes and references the charges made by Swedish journalist Donald Bostrom in Aftonbladet last year that the Israeli military has stolen Palestinian organs (a claim to which Israel partially admitted last December in an Israeli television documentary, according to a report by Ian Black of the Guardian (“Doctor admits Israeli pathologists harvested organs without consent,” 21 December 2009).

YNet interviewed T. West for its piece, asking him specifically about the claim of harvesting organs in general. To this, the activist responded, “This is not the official policy of the Israeli military, but a few individuals did this,” again making no specific claim to the harvesting of Haitian organs.

Following the publication of the YNet article, Iran’s PressTV (“Israel harvesting organs in Haiti?” 20 January 2010), The Palestine Telegraph (article since removed), and a number of other sites parroted the claims to varying degrees of accuracy. The PressTV story directly references the YNet article.

Now, claims that never occurred, in a video that would have remained obscure were it not for an Israeli source, have spiraled out of control. Just like last year, when Bostrom’s Aftonbladet piece sparked a campaign within Israel that had the government demanding Sweden condemn the article and ordinary Israelis boycotting IKEA, this is a case of media irresponsibility resulting in real-world repercussions. In this instance, Jenny Tonge, an important ally to Palestinians, has lost credibility and her position, and for what? Careless repetition, at worst.

Of course, each of the media entities that repeated YNet’s claim are partly responsible and should be more cautious in their reporting and fact-checking. But one cannot compare The Palestine Telegraph, a small, independent and fairly new online media source to well-funded media like YNet (which is among Israel’s top 10 websites), nor to CNN, the UK’s Telegraph,The Jerusalem Post, and the AP, all of which have quickly pointed the finger at The Palestinian Telegraph and not YNet as the source of the claims. Responsibility falls squarely on YNet for catapulting the video of an unknown wannabe-pundit into notoriety.

Jillian C. York is a writer and free speech activist who frequently covers Palestinian blogs for Global Voices Online and blogs at jilliancyork.com.