Video: Interview with Israel’s Chief Pathologist on unauthorized organ harvesting (with some context)
I’ve uploaded the video broadcast on Israeli TV on Friday (December 18 2009) with Israel’s former Chief Pathologist, Prof. Yehuda Hiss, admitting that he oversaw the unauthorized harvesting of organs in the ’90s. You can view it here, and a translated transcript with some hyperlinks is after the cut. If anybody wants to help and caption the video, that would be great: download it, upload to your account, caption and send me the link so I can re-upload.
There is no corroboration of what appears to be the way most of the world now perceives as the assertion of the now infamous Aftonbladet op-ed — that Palestinians were targeted and killed by Israel for the purpose of harvesting their organs. If anything, Israel was an equal opportunity organ thief. All cadavers going through the National Center for Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir were subject to this treatment, including at least one IDF soldier. The Palestinian connection is indirect — because they are occupied by Israel, some of their cadavers also went into this production line. This is not to understate the criminality of the practice, nor it’s immorality and hypocrisy, especially from a culture that places so much value in the integrity of cadavers and a state obsessed with their recovery from enemy hands. The classic blood libel — that Jews kill gentiles and use their bodies — has not been affirmed, however.
Long (and more important) story
The behavior of the Government of Israel has made the jobs of anti-Semites and blood libelers much easier. I am not referring to its policies on the Palestinian issue, to the monstrous beliefs and actions of right-wing Jewish fundamentalists, nor to the medieval theocrats who increasingly govern the personal lives of Israelis of all persuasions. I am referring to a political class, unable to deal coherently with the country’s core problems, which has made demagoguery, disguised as “defense of the Jewish people,” a primary weapon in its communications arsenal.
A government that truly cared about defending Jews from anti-Semitism would have reacted to the Aftonbladet op-ed by publishing Prof. Hiss’ confession on its own, in the same paper and within a short period of time. That way, it would have remained a Swedish tabloid flap and not fueled an un-extinguishable global debate. Embarrassing but not dangerous.
Instead, either incompetently or maliciously, Netanyahu and Lieberman used it to show their mettle in standing-up to the pro-Palestinian Europeans, with the Israeli neoconservative chorus, like Dore Gold and Gerald Steinberg, enthusiastically cheering. End result: Much of the world became aware of Aftonbladet allegation and now has also heard that someone exposed an Israeli admitting that it was true. That is how modern communications works, as Netanyahu, the self-proclaimed hasbara expert, should know. The damage is not limited to this specific libel, because it contributes to the perception that, as a matter of course, Israelis lie until caught.
One does not have too look far for proof that this behavior is pathological (and I don’t mean that as a pun.) Last Thursday, (December 17 2009) the Arbeit Macht Frei sign was stolen from Auschwitz. No self-respecting Israeli politician lost even a moment in decrying the anti-Semitism/neo-Nazism behind the incident. Sunday is cabinet meeting day. From the first morning radio newscast to the late-night TV news wrap Ministers tried to outdo each other in sanctimony and pathos. Then, this evening (December 22 2009,) some very minor reporting that it was theft-on-order for a collector (I am aware that the fact that he is Swedish may well keep the anti-semitic conspiracy alive. But I think readers get my point.) Tomorrow is another day, which might very well bring another incident to give these addicts their polemic fix.
When I was younger, progressives here expressed their humanistic worldview by saying that they were Israelis before they were Jews. I don’t think that works any more.
Narrator Yair Lapid: For years it has been rumored that dark things were happening in the National Center for Forensic Medicine [popularly known as the Forensic Institute] in Abu-Kabir that must not happen. Courageous doctors who worked in the autopsy cellars occasionally tried to break through the wall of silence and alert the media of what was really going on there, but when their testimonies were published, others denied them. This evening, Ulpan Shishi will air the facts for the first time. A small tape with the recorded voice of Prof. Yehuda Hiss, the institute director, where he reveals how — ceaselessly, for almost a decade — organs were harvested there without the knowledge of the victims’ families. Yifat Glick has the story.
Hiss [on tape]: My name is Hiss, Yehuda Hiss. I am a forensic expert. Here, we are dealing with forensic medicine and anatomic pathology. I am qualified in both.
Glick: Hiss never sounded like this before: free of politically-correct constraints, uninhibited, almost transparent. Speaking for 57 minutes on a secret tape that was recorded in the summer of 2000, Prof Hiss, the national pathologist and one of the most controversial figures in the Israeli health establishment, did not stop. He spoke eloquently, full of conviction, and cold as usual.
In his recorded remarks, which he probably assumed would never reach the media, he sheds light for the first time on the way he managed one of the darkest institutions in the State of Israel, describing secret events that took place there between the late 1980’s and the year 2000.
In 1988, Hiss assumed post as director of the Forensic Institute in the neighborhood of Abu-Kabir, on the border between Yafo and Tel Aviv. Over the years, the institute issued not only tragic death announcements, but also news about organs that were transplanted and saved the lives of hundreds. Here, however, is where the problem lies. In the early 1990’s, few in Israel were aware of the benefits of organ transplants. Prof Hiss decided to do something about it. He employed a simple and cheap process that lasted only a few minutes. Hiss or one of his subordinate doctors would examine a corpse that arrived in the institute and quickly remove corneas that were to be transplanted.
Unidentified speaker: I attended more than 1,000 autopsies. I took notes. I did not understand a thing, but I kept everything on record. Someone would approach a body and do something with its eyes. I did not know what it was, but I logged it.
Hiss: We removed just the corneas. We did not like removing the entire eyeball. When I was an intern, we used to remove the entire eyeball, but later we learned that it is better to…, and we closed the eyelids with glue and covered the place, so that there was no need to open the eye.
Prof. Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Berkeley: So there was no way of knowing…
Hiss: There was no way of knowing.
Glick: According to the Anatomy and Pathology Act, the Forensic Institute must first contact the family of the deceased and let it know that they intend to remove organs from his body, which are to be transplanted. If the family objected, the institute physicians were not allowed to harvest organs.
Hiss: We started harvesting corneas for several Israeli hospitals. Initially, we did that for the Tel Hashomer Hospital, of course, because I had friends there who knew me well. They did not pay us for this, but we did receive some donations. For example, after 3 or 4 years of collaboration with Tel Hashomer, they gave us a microscope. The Hadassah Hospital gave us a VCR for our own use. We did everything off the record, highly informal. We never asked the for the families’ permission.
Glick: The parties involved in the organ harvest affair simply interpreted the law as their saw fit. They considered the families consent to an autopsy for legal purposes as implied consent to harvest the organs of their loved ones for transplantation purposes.
Hiss: In the 1990’s, we did the same thing with long bones. Then, we were asked to do the same with heart valves.
Scheper-Hughes: Yes, I was asking about that….
Hiss: We did very few heart valves.
Scheper-Hughes: And the families did not know?
Hiss: That is correct.
Glick: Still, not only heart valves and bones were harvested from corpses without the families consent.
Scheper-Hughes: Legally — according to the law that is now a new Israeli law — is that permissible?
Hiss: It was not clear. I believe that in 1981, they issued an amendment according to which, you had to ask for the family’s consent, and so on.
Scheper-Hughes: I see. OK.
Hiss: This, all of this… it was not done. I mean, once the next of kin gave his consent for an autopsy, we felt that we may. So we took only skin off the back, but not corneas, when we knew that the families of the deceased would open their eyelids to…
Scheper-Hughes: What kind of families are we speaking about?
Hiss: There are religious Muslims who throw sand into the open casket.
Dr. Avi Weinberg ["plastic surgery expert who served with the IDF reserves in the Forensic Institute in the 1990's"]: We did not completely remove the skin. We only took a thin layer of skin from the back side of the body so that during burial, when the body lies on the back, you could not see a thing.
Glick: In 1996, the Skin Bank was established in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital. The bank, that was meant to help treating hundreds of people who suffered burns, was established jointly by the IDF and the Health Ministry. Dr. Arie Eldad, today a National Union MK, was a senior officer with the Chief Medical Officer’s command and one of those who headed the bank project. The IDF asked the Forensic Institute to supply skin tissue.
Eldad: In the State of Israel, skin may be taken from bodies that can be harvested for skin or other organs, based on the Anatomy and Pathology Act. That act explicitly says that if an organ is needed to save a living person’s life, and if that organ must be harvested, the family of the deceased must be notified and, if they do not object, they may take skin.
Glick: Are you saying that you asked for the families’ permission every time you harvested skin?
Eldad: Those were the instructions.
Glick: The IDF established a special unit of doctors that were called up for reserve duty with the Forensic Institute.
Weinberg: I did not read the law, and I was not… I was….
Glick: These were the instructions you were given?
Weinberg: These were the instructions, and so I was told.
Glick: In June 1992, an expert professor, who served his reserves duty with the institute, wrote a letter to the chief IDF medical officer. [Quotes from the letter]: “In a meeting with the unit’s physicians, Lieutenant Colonel Arie Eldad told us that whenever we are asked to remove skin from a dead body, there will be a court order that authorizes the operation, and the family will give its consent to harvesting skin.
“While serving in Abu-Kabir, I realized that the information that Dr. Eldad gave us was incorrect. Families were not notified that skin was harvested, not even in a single case.”
The fact is, that in the 1990’s organs were harvested without the families’ consent, were they not?
Eldad: I don’t know what you are talking about. I do say, however, that we have always followed the law precisely, in letter and in spirit. What you are doing here is blood libel against a specific interviewee. At this stage, I am terminating this interview. Thank you.
Glick: In 1999, the Ha’ir weekly carried complaints by doctors who served in the reserves with the Forensic Institute, who claimed that families of the deceased were not aware of the fact that skin was harvested. Hiss provided a laconic reply saying, of course: “Everything you said is most inaccurate, but you are the free press, so you will say whatever you want.” In the audiotape we have here, however, Hiss sounds very different.
Hiss: They used to send a plastic surgeon here every week. Instead of sending him to serve with a military unit, they would come here and their only task was to harvest skin for the Bank Skin in Hadassah. This lasted for years. More than 12 or 13 years, I think; since 1987 or 1988 until almost 1998.
Glick: When Hiss was asked, on tape, why was that skin deal terminated in the late 1990s, he angrily recalled a scandal that broke out then and was known as the Buzaglo affair.
The late Sergeant Zeev Buzaglo of the Golani Brigade was killed in a training accident in April 1997. His father, Dr Haim Buzaglo, a pediatrician, came to see the body.
Buzaglo: When they opened the casket, I saw he was harmed. I saw they practiced on him. I saw they sliced his neck and that his corneas were removed. My wife, who is not a physician, looked at him, all broken up as she was, and said to me: Haim, what happened to his eyes? I said: It is because of the refrigeration. I just answered something because that was not the time to talk, but I realized something was happening there. It is not that they did not ask us and just believed we consented. We signed a document. They have our signature.
Glick: Saying that you were against that?
Buzaglo: Of course.
Glick: You were against any kind of autopsy?
Buzaglo: Sure. We did not want him touched at all. Furthermore, I wrote there, using my pen, warning them not to touch his eyes. I had this intuition.
Yedioth Ahronoth correspondent Ronen Bergman: Hiss denies it all. He denied everything.
Glick: Are you saying that research was conducted and that organs were harvested?
Bergman: Yes, and he denies the research, and the perjury, and the organ harvest. He denies everything. He said it was all done in agreement and by law, and that families consented to harvest for transplantation. No organs were taken for studies, he said, none at all.
Glick: In the end, the system decided not to press criminal charges against Prof. Hiss in this affair, but Dr. Buzaglo decided to file a civil suit against the institute director, the IDF, and the Health Ministry.
Prof. Hiss was taped by Prof. Nancy Scheper-Hughes, a professor of medical anthropology from the Berkeley University, a world expert on cultures attitudes to death. She arrived at the Forensic Institute while conducting a research, watched Prof Hiss at work, and interviewed him. The tape of the interview collected dust in her office for 10 years, until she heard the news of the scandal that was created in the wake of a Swedish journalist’s report from which some people mistakenly gathered that Israel is murdering Palestinians to harvest their organs.
Scheper-Hughes is convinced, as the Swedish journalist eventually admitted, that Israel never murdered Palestinians to harvest their organs and transplant them. She argued, however, that organs were harvested from bodies that happened to arrive in the institute, to their misfortune, including Palestinians.
Scheper-Hughes [in English]: It was not exclusively Palestinians or bodies of terrorists. It included all kinds of people, but the symbolism, you know, of taking skin from a population that is considered to be the enemy and using it, the skin, for the military…. That is something that, just in terms of its symbolic weight, has to be reconsidered.
Glick: For a decade, skin, corneas, heart valves, and bones were harvested from bodies of Israeli citizens and soldiers, Palestinians, and foreign laborers. In many of those cases, no one had notified the families or asked for their permission. It took a very long time before someone put an end to this covert operation, which was conducted on the dead bodies.
Lapid: Over their dead bodies, literally. The Health Ministry’s reaction this evening is very strange — for lack of a better word — and full of contradictions. [reading the response] “We were aware of the organ harvesting operations and it was done with our authorization. At the time, procedures were not clear.” Here, however, the ministry added a sentence that completely contradicts everything it said before. “As a rule, organs for transplantation are harvested from people who agreed to donate their organs when they were still alive. No use was made of such organs without consent.” The ministry added that, “in the past, a discussion was held in the attorney general’s office, and he established that no training should be conducted on bodies without the families’ consent. Having examined every aspect of that activity, the Israel Police decided not to start any legal proceedings against anyone involved. For more than a decade now, work in the Institute is conducted according to the law and under the rules of ethics, morality, and the Halacha.”
Prof. Yehuda Hiss of the Forensic Institute, and the Asaf Harofe Medical Center or Hospital wrote us this evening, saying in reaction that the story we just aired “addresses incidents that took place a long time ago, long before the Asaf Harofe Medical Center assumed responsibility for the institute. Committees that examined the issues you mentioned found only administrative faults and, as a direct result of their findings, Prof. Hiss lost his position as institute director, and it is now managed by the Asaf Harofe Medical Center.
“Prof. Hiss kept his position as chief forensic physician in the institute. At the same time, clear procedures were drafted regarding every field of activity in the Forensic Institute and ever since then, every activity there is conducted in accordance with these procedures.” Let us hope so, because the past was very different.
We also received the reaction of the IDF spokesperson, who established that these operations were terminated a decade ago and are no longer practiced.