Sunday, July 22, 2012

Blood Libel promoted by Counterpunch, Alison Weir

The death of Alexander Cockburn has predictably elicited some hagiographic eulogies in the Nation and elsewhere. In light of certain oversights in those obits, I am re-posting the following which was originally posted here on September 11, 2009, and subsequently cross-posted at Harry's Place. A second post on the subject is available here. Those who think the Counterpunch article discussed here was anomalous should take note that the pseudonymous author "Israel Shamir", whose role in promoting the blood libel is discussed below, has a column in the current edition of Counterpunch which argues that the infamous prosecution of Col. Alfred Dreyfus was just.


The blog Counterpunch, which is edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, has published an article which alleges that the blood libel is true and is related to purported Israeli thefts of human organs from Palestinians. The blood libel, the charge that Jews ritually murdered gentiles and used their blood to cast spells, was a mainstay of medieval European anti-Semitism. In Europe, the blood libel led to pogroms, mass slayings and expulsions. The Counterpunch article may be the first instance of an American leftist media outlet promoting the blood libel.

The Counterpunch article (read here) supports and elaborates on spurious allegations concerning Israeli theft of body parts from Palestinians -- charges originally appearing in an article by Donald Bostrom which was published in the Swedish tabloid newspaper Aftonbladet. The controversy concerning that article has received extensive coverage internationally (read here). Medical experts have unanimously stated that the theft of organs from the dead for use in transplants, as alleged in the story, is medically impossible (read here). Bostrom's article claims that Israeli soldiers hunted down a Palestinian youth, shooting him in the chest and abdomen at close range in order to steal his organs. The alleged witnesses to the events described in his article, including the families of the purported victims, have completely disavowed the story (read here). Counterpunch alleges not only that such murders and thefts of organs in fact truly occur, but that they are part of a campaign which is sanctioned by the Israeli government and other Israeli institutions and that it is connected to religious traditions allowing the ritual murder of gentiles.

The Counterpunch coverage of these allegations was written by Alison Weir, the head of an anti-Israel organization called If Americans Knew. Weir's Counterpunch article derives in large part from articles written about the controversy by a notorious anti-Semite who goes by the assumed name "Israel Shamir". Weir deceptively identifies Shamir in her footnotes as an "Israeli writer" in spite of widely reported revelations that Shamir is actually a Swede of Russian descent and that he is associated with Russian ultra-nationalists. Shamir has been disavowed by many on the left and in the pro-Palestinian movement as the result of his overtly anti-Semitic writings and his connections to the far-right. Research into his real background has revealed that he began his journalism career under his assumed name working for a prominent far-right, Russian nationalist anti-Semite, Aleksandr Prokhanov, chief editor of the newspaper Zavtra. Even as he presents himself to the west as a leftist, anti-Zionist, "Shamir" has continued to publish explicitly right-wing articles in Russia and Eastern Europe. Shamir's original article in support of the spurious organ theft allegations is posted here. His advocacy of the blood libel can be read here. Shamir writes in the latter article that "'Blood libel' is the Jewish battle cry", thus claiming not only that the libel is in fact true, but that to say otherwise is an act of aggression.

In her Counterpunch article, Weir parrots Shamir's arguments that the blood libel is no libel, and that the charge that it is libel is a ruse used by Jews to suppress the revelation of their crimes. She writes:

"In scanning through the reaction to Bostrom’s report, one is struck by the multitude of charges that his article is a new version of the old anti-Semitic “blood libel.” Given that fact, it is interesting to examine a 2007 book by Israel’s preeminent expert on medieval Jewish history, and what happened to him.

"The author is Bar-Ilan professor (and rabbi) Ariel Toaff, son of the
former chief rabbi of Rome, a religious leader so famous that an Israeli journalist writes that Toaff’s father “is to Italian Jewry as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris.” Ariel Toaff, himself, is considered “one of the greatest scholars in his field.”

"In February 2007 the Israeli and Italian media were abuzz (though most of the U.S. media somehow missed it) with news that Professor Toaff had written a book entitled "Pasque di Sangue" (“Blood Passovers”) containing evidence that there “was a factual basis for some of the medieval blood libels against the Jews.”

"Based on 35 years of research, Toaff had concluded that there were at least a few, possibly many, real incidents.

"In an interview with an Italian newspaper (the book was published in Italy), Toaff says:
"“My research shows that in the Middle Ages, a group of fundamentalist Jews did not respect the biblical prohibition and used blood for healing. It is just one group of Jews, who belonged to the communities that suffered the severest persecution during the Crusades. From this trauma came a passion for revenge that in some cases led to responses, among them ritual murder of Christian children.”

"(Incidentally, an earlier book containing similar findings was published some years ago, also by an Israeli professor, Israel Shahak, of whom Noam Chomsky once wrote, “Shahak is an outstanding scholar, with remarkable insight and depth of knowledge. His work is informed and penetrating, a contribution of great value.” )

"Professor Toaff was immediately attacked from all sides, including pressure orchestrated by Anti-Defamation League chairman Abe Foxman, but Toaff stood by his 35 years of research, announcing:

"I will not give up my devotion to the truth and academic freedom even if the world crucifies me… One shouldn't be afraid to tell the truth."

"Before long, however, under relentless public and private pressure, Toaff had recanted, withdrawn his book, and promised to give all profits that had already accrued (the book had been flying off Italian bookshelves) to Foxman’s Anti-Defamation League. A year later he published a “revised version.”

"Donald Bostrom’s experience seems to be a repeat of what Professor Toaff endured: calumny, vituperation, and defamation. Bostrom has received death threats as well, perhaps an experience that Professor Toaff also shared.

"If Israel is innocent of organ plundering accusations, or if its culpability is considerably less than Bostrom and others suggest, it should welcome honest investigations that would clear it of wrongdoing. Instead, the government and its advocates are working to suppress all debate and crush those whose questions and conclusions they find threatening."

Many of the claims in that excerpt are falsehoods intended to support an unsupportable conclusion: that Jews ritually murdered gentiles. Let's debunk some of them in order:

1) Ariel Toaff is not "Israel’s preeminent expert on medieval Jewish history". Weir has no reason to believe that he is and provides no citation for this invented claim. Toaff is not a rabbi. Toaff did not conduct 35 years of research into the question of whether Jews conducted ritual murders of gentiles, or used blood to cast spells. All of these claims by Weir are untrue and were invented by Weir to burnish Toaff's reputation as an expert on the subject of ritual murder and bolster his opinions about it.

2) In the first edition of the book in question, Toaff relied on faulty logic to reach the conclusion that a small group of Jews may have conducted ritual murders and ritually used blood in contradiction of Jewish law as a form of revenge for the anti-Jewish atrocities of the Crusades. He based his conclusion on testimony extracted from Jewish victims under the extreme duress of medieval torture chambers, the sole documentary record of these events. One would expect that a historian researching this subject would bring an understanding of the tainted origin of these documents and counterbalance them with that understanding and a knowledge of the historical context. In the annals of lapses of judgment by historians, Toaff's initial credulous reliance on these documents must rank high. Neither Toaff nor Weir offer any reason for the reader to accept the veracity of statements extracted under extreme duress, and readers shouldn't do so.

3) Toaff, since the initial publication of his book, has retracted his earlier conclusions concerning ritual murder. (Read here.) He has issued a new version of his book which states unequivocally that "Jews were not involved in ritual murder, which was an entirely Christian stereotype". Weir neglects to mention this statement, continuing to maintain that Toaff found that "there was a factual basis for some of the medieval blood libels against the Jews. Based on 35 years of research, Toaff had concluded that there were at least a few, possibly many, real incidents." Toaff's retraction occured 18 months prior to Weir's article. While Weir does mention that Toaff has issued a new version of his book, she fails to detail his more recent findings, dismissing them as a capitulation to pressure by Abe Foxman and the ADL -- proof to her of a Jewish conspiracy of silence.

4) In order to shore up Ariel Toaff's credentials, Weir quotes a Haaretz article with respect to the high regard for Toaff's father, Rabbi Elio Toaff. Elio Toaff served with great distinction as chief rabbi of Rome in the 1950s and 1960s. He also demonstrated extraordinary bravery as an anti-fascist partisan during World War II. Weir quotes the Haaretz article to the effect that Elio Toaff “is to Italian Jewry as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris”. She fails to cite that article in a footnote, however, because to do so would have forced her to give its headline: "The wayward son". A footnote or link also would have allowed Weir's readers to see the following quote from Rabbi Elio Toaff in the lede paragraph:
"(T)he criticism that everyone has expressed about his book was justified. His arguments in the book were an insult to the intelligence, to the tradition, to history in general and to the meaning of the Jewish religion. It saddens me that such nonsense was put forward by my son of all people."
The Haaretz article Weir quoted but failed to cite goes on to describe the reaction to the publication of the first version of Ariel Toaff's book as "the shock currently being felt by the Italian Jewish community over this human tragedy". Weir either completely misunderstood the point of the article or she deliberately withheld it. She either inadvertently failed to cite the quote's source, or she deliberately suppressed it. You be the judge.

5) Weir cites Israel Shahak as a purported expert on Judaism who supported the truth of the blood libel, stating point blank that Shahak reached similar conclusions to those reached by Toaff. The footnote Weir provides for this claim, a biographical sketch of Shahak by Norton Mezvinisky on the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs website, does not in any way support this assertion. (In fact, the only aspect of what Weir wrote about Shahak which is supported in the article she cited is that Noam Chomsky provided Shahak with an extremely generous blurb for a book cover.) Shahak, who was a chemistry professor at Hebrew University and not an authority on history or religion, was infamously the author of a polemical pamphlet concerning Judaism entitled Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years. This book, which largely consists of very obvious falsehoods, is a favorite among those who want ammunition against Jews but are not particularly concerned about accuracy. It is notable not for scholarship but for its palpable disdain for its subject. To give a sense of the tone of Shahak's book, it literally argues that the Chmielniki massacres, in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed, were justified. (Read here and here.) The book also absurdly claims that religious Jews worship Satan. It even falsely contends (at length) that Judaism permits the murder of gentiles and forbids violating the Sabbath to save a gentile's life. (As the grandson of an Orthodox Jewish physician who routinely broke the Sabbath to care for Jews and gentiles alike, this argument is especially galling to me.) In spite of all that, I know of no instance where even Shahak alleged that the blood libel was literally true. In fact, he said the contrary. On page 21 of the 1994 Pluto Press edition of Jewish History, Jewish Religion (available here), he makes a point to distinguish such claims from medieval arguments against the Jewish religion with which he agrees.
"We are not referring here to ignorant calumnies, such as the blood libel, propagated by benighted monks in small provincial cities."
It is precisely such an ignorant calumny which Alison Weir and Counterpunch have published.

Anecdotal Evidence

Weir's article makes the case that Israel plays a disproportionate role in the illegal trade in human organs, that the government and military is involved, and (as indicated above) that this trade has its roots in Jewish religious traditions involving ritual murder of gentiles. The obvious spuriousness of her evidence for this is helpful because it puts the bad faith behind the inaccuracies of the rest of her arguments into clear focus. But the rest of her arguments hardly stand up to close scrutiny even without taking her support of the blood libel into consideration.

To make her argument, Weir provides a deceptive history of the issue, citing no statistical studies of the issue, but relying exclusively on anecdotes from media coverage of a number of Israeli cases concerning illegal or unethical medical use of organs. Her version of events cites a few reports concerning claims made by anonymous sources to bloggers and activists. She cites an editorial from the Forward which details some Israeli cases involving parts taken from corpses and used for medical instruction, not transplant. The Forward editorial decries the inappropriate use of human organs for research or study as an international problem concerning treatment of the dead, and specifically reaches the conclusion that the charge that Israel is harvesting Palestinian organs for transplants is baseless. (Read here.) Weir, as usual, selects from this piece the facts which tend to support her case and completely withholds its main point. She also repeatedly cites "Israel Shamir". Based on unreliable or cherry-picked anecdotal evidence and completely lacking supporting statistics, Weir reaches the conclusion that Israeli involvement in the illegal organ trade is uniquely widespread, and is state and institutionally sanctioned.

The first anecdote Weir cites is a case in point. It concerns the sad case of the donor for Israel's first heart transplant, a stroke victim who had not consented to be an organ donor. His family protested this surgery and was allegedly forced by the hospital to sign a release from liability before the body was released to them. This troubling case was widely reported at the time, and rightfully led Israel to enact greater protections from such practices, which Israel, like other nations, did not properly regulate in the early transplant era. Not only does Weir not provide this historical context, she goes so far as to imply without basis that the donor was deliberately allowed to die (or worse) in order to transplant his heart, that this practice is allowed under Israeli law and that it is commonplace there.

Where is Counterpunch headed?

It is bad enough that Counterpunch, in the name of defending human rights, would publish such patently false charges as true. It is outrageous that they would present the anti-Semitism of the middle ages as a progressive response to the Jewish people, whom they portray as intrinsically reactionary and criminal. In doing this, Counterpunch has turned the definitions of "progressive" and "reactionary" on their heads. In fact, they have completely turned logic on its head. What will they support next? The Spanish Inquisition?

NOTE: Counterpunch is publishing other articles supporting the spurious charges from Aftonbladet. One, entitled "Israeli Bodysnatchers", was authored by Bouthaina Shaaban, chief spokesperson for President Assad of Syria and a former Syrian "Minister of Expatriates". Shaaban describes herself as "a Nobel Peace Prize nominee". (I love when people claim that as a credential. Literally anyone can be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, so those who cite it as an honor always do so fraudulently.) In addition to repeating the absurd organ trafficking charges, her article also baselessly blames Israel for the assassination of Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh.


Stop BDS Park Slope said...

Adam -

What an amazing and comprehensive research job you did! I am so glad I finally made the time to read this.

It is so disheartening to learn the depth of the venom against us that exists.


Adam Holland said...

Thanks, Barbara. Check out part 2 here: Alison Weir continues to promote blood libel

Rob said...

Thanks for exposing another criminal trash story by counterpunch masquerading as being leftist & liberal
The truth takes time to explain while lies are quickly digested
Please keep up the brilliant work you are doing


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