Western culture reached a sort of a milestone August 17 with the publication in Sweden’s largest-circulation daily newspaper, the tabloid Aftonbladet, of an opinion essay suggesting that Israeli soldiers are killing Palestinians in order to harvest their organs. Here’s how Yediot Ahronot sums up the fray.
The writer, photojournalist Donald Bolstrom, didn’t exactly say that Israelis are killing Palestinians and harvesting their organs. He merely said he had heard such claims from Palestinians, and given the latest now that an illicit organ-selling ring (actually one guy) in Brooklyn had been exposed, with links to Israel, he thinks it’s time for an investigation. He told Israel Radio on August 19 that he doesn’t know if the charge is true but he’s “concerned.”
Israel is responding with undiluted outrage. Foreign Ministry officials called in the Swedish ambassador, and have released a flood of public statements calling it a “blood libel.” The ambassador, Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier, issued a statement of her own saying the article was “as shocking and appalling to us Swedes as it is to Israeli citizens.” The Swedish Foreign Ministry promptly disavowed Bonnier’s statement, insisting that it was strictly her own view, “for local consumption,” and that the “Swedish government is committed to freedom of the press.”
Well, yes, freedom of the press is an essential building block of a democratic society. But, as A.J. Liebling once said, “freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one.” Not every publisher publishes everything that comes across the desk. In fact, given constraints of space, printing and mailing costs and the like, publication in a major periodical is a highly selective process. Editors are deluged every day with material that authors are desperate to see published. The editors pick the items they think will most interest the readers, best serve the public interest or best advance their own and their publishers’ convictions.
So what does it say about Sweden’s largest newspaper that it chose to publish an article speculating that Israeli soldiers might be killing Palestinians and harvesting their organs? Well, first of all, it says that Sweden’s most important gatekeepers and tastemakers think it is plausible — and that their readers will think it plausible — that Israelis are capable of such behavior. It says that the Swedish government sees nothing wrong with innocently raising a fair question. It says that the image of Israel in the eyes of mainstream Swedes has passed far beyond the negative into the realm of the demonic.
Lest we take this as evidence of the eternal durability of Jew-hatred, though, let’s put it in context. According to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, a whopping 45% of Americans believe it is “likely” that the government plans to decide when to stop providing medical care to the elderly — that is, to take up euthanasia. That speculation has been endorsed by the senior senator from Nebraska, Charles Grassley, and by the Republican Party’s vice-presidential candidate in last year’s election, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. That is to say, close to half of the American people believe their government is capable of killing old people to save a few bucks, and some major American leaders are willing to give such delusions their asmachta seal of approval, f nihil obstat.
The simplest way to put it is that the tendency toward demonization of strangers is spreading like swine flu.
It was 15 years ago that America was rattled by a book authored by two academics, Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, purporting to prove that blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites. The book became a best-seller, selling more than 300,000 copies. But here again, as in our other cases, it’s not just that the public bought in; it’s that supposedly responsible, mainstream publishers chose to put it before the public and give it their imprimatur. In October 1994 the ur-respectable weekly, The New Republic, devoted a special issue to the Murray-Herrnstein book, with a 10,000-word extract from the book and 17 pro and con essays by others.
Should The New Republic have given the book so much publicity and credibility? According to the magazine’s editor at the time, Andrew Sullivan, writing in an unsigned editorial in the special issue, “the notion that there might be resilient ethnic differences in intelligence is not, we believe, an inherently racist belief. It’s an empirical hypothesis, which can be examined.”
Liberal columnist Eric Alterman, revisiting the affair in 2007, had this to say in reply to Sullivan: “This defense of Murray and Herrnstein’s speech right to free speech rather than the validity of their argument, sounds plausible until one remembers that Holocaust denial is also an empirical hypothesis that can be examined.”
Holocaust denial is illegal in much of Europe. It’s legal in America because the First Amendment prevents government from outlawing forms of speech — except, the Supreme Court has ruled, in cases of direct incitement to violence. But it’s not published in respectable venues, not merely because it defies reason but because the very act of espousing it is presumed to be a knowing assault on decency. Just like the Murray-Herrnstein thesis.
So where do we draw the line between hypotheses that deserve to be examined and those that are properly relegated to the fringes — or, by European standards, outlawed? Perhaps we could start with the caveat that there ought to be some serious evidence to warrant raising the question.
But that doesn’t seem to be necessary these days. Bostrom, the Swedish journalist, didn’t need more than accusations y bgrieving Palestinians that their loved one’s remains had been tampered with (Israeli observers note that the bodies usually come back to the relatives with stitches in the torso because of autopsies, mandatory in Israel in cases of violent death), buttressed by a scandal out of Brooklyn. He’s ignorant enough to suppose that a Brooklyn Hasid might ever work in cahoots with the Israeli army, and off he goes. Evidence? He doesn’t need it. He’s just raising an “empirical hypothesis,” as Andrew Sullivan puts it.
Or, for another instance, take the recent flareup in the White House briefing room between Fox News correspondent Major Garrett and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. On August 13, Garrett rose at a press conference to ask if the White House was compiling secret email lists, perhaps in illegal collusion with the Democratic National Committee, in order to blast unsuspecting citizens with propaganda in favor of health reform. Gibbs says he’s heard nothing, but he’ll look into it. Not good enough for Garrett.
No, Garrett wants an answer now. Not that he has any proof. He’s heard from some people that they got emails they hadn’t looked for, and he wants to brandish them on national television in order to plant the suspicion that the White House is engaged in some felonious conspiracy. One might think that a reporter would take something like this and go investigate it. If there were anything to it, the reporter would have a scoop. But Garrett doesn’t want to do all that work. Anyway his goal isn’t to seek out and report the truth. If it’s truth he wanted he surely wouldn’t have asked a White House spokesman. No, he simply wants to plant suspicion. And Fox News is happy to air the segment over and over for days, with lead-ins like “Is the White House compiling lists?” to plant a suspicion where no evidence exists.
Well, then, perhaps we should start our search for standards from a baseline of human decency. Presumably, it should be obvious to all of us that the notion of Israeli soldiers harvesting Palestinians’ organs, or of the American government killing its own citizens to save money, is nothing but a malicious delusion. The trouble is, broad sectors of the public take both assertions as perfectly reasonable and even likely. They’re not deterred by accusations that they are bigoted antisemitic or delusional, since they’re confident that they already know who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy here. To them, the accusations of antisemitism and delusion are simply more evidence that the presumed perps have something to hide. This new virus has developed a resistance to the old cures. Our scientists should be coming up with new antidotes. But no, they’re still infatuated with the old one. Antisemitism! Blood libel! For shame!
To see how complicated this simple problem has become, think back to the fall of 2005, when a Danish newspaper published a selection of cartoons wryly depicting the prophet Muhammad. The cartoons sparked violent reactions throughout the Muslim world by Muslims offended that the prophet of Islam could be mocked in public.
The outrage wasn’t limited to Islamic fundamentalist demagogues and angry mobs. Prominent, respected Muslim figures, writing in measured terms, scolded the West that basic decency ought to dictate respect for the beliefs of a great religion. Some of the Muslim responses sounded eerily similar to the current outrage over the Swedish organ-harvesting libel. Here’s what a commentator wrote at the time in the Al-Ittihad newspaper in the United Arab Emirates: “The justification that one must respect the constitution that guarantees freedom of opinion and expression, including the freedom to denigrate others, was not appropriate — this is the trap that Denmark fell into.”
And the cartoon flap is still going on, four years later. A new book is due out in November from Yale University Press, “The Cartoons That Shook the World,” and ironically it will not show images of the cartoons in question because the publisher worries that it would spark a new wave of violence. Now conservative defenders of free speech (here and here), and some not so conservative, are criticizing Yale for knuckling under to Islamic extremism and ironically censoring a study of censorship.
It will be interesting to hear what these critics have to say in the next few days about free speech in Sweden.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).