No. 476 April 2002
An Epidemic on the West Bank
On the morning of March 21, 1983, one week before Pesach, in a high school in the town of Arrabeh in the Jenin area of the West Bank, Palestinian girls (between the ages of 15 and 17) were sitting in several classrooms when they suddenly began to faint, one after the other. They were taken to hospital and checked, but no medical reason was found for their fainting. Yet they had fainted, so a search began in order to find the reason.
Then other girls of the same age began fainting in other villages on the West Bank, in Bethlehem, and afterwards in Hebron and Halhul, Tulkarem and Nablus. Over a period of a few days approximately 1,000 girls ended up in hospital at the same time, seemingly victims of an epidemic.
Since all this occurred just before Pesach, the motif of blood libel and mass poisoning was raised. The rumors began that it was the Israelis who had poisoned the girls.
The Arab Tradition of Miracle Literature
The famous Japanese director Akira Kurasawa made a classic film in 1950, “Rashomon,” based on a Japanese folk tale from the twelfth century. It told the story of the family of a Samurai who were attacked by thieves. Afterward, there are four different stories of the incident. The dead Samurai’s spirit tells what happened from his point of view. There are also the stories of his wife, one of the servants, and a woodcutter who happened to witness the attack. The film is a fascinating depiction of four different points of view of the same event, and Kurasawa’s message is that there is no objective truth. The truth can be given different interpretations, and everyone can see the truth from a different angle.
In the Middle Ages there was a genre in Arabic literature known as miracle literature. The author would describe his adventures on the way to China or India. He would tell fantastic stories about places with all kinds of amazing things, about diamonds, silver, and gold, about eagles that would fly with him, and afterwards it came together in the wonderful stories we know in the collection of A Thousand and One Nights.
The Palestinian-Arab-Muslim stories about what happens here simply remind one of the miracle literature. Stories come out of the imagination and are strengthened by new inventions. This is what interests the people, and whether it happened or not is not that important. In the political reality, the invented story is believed in the Palestinian-Arab-Muslim consciousness as the truth.
Accusing the Israelis
After the mass fainting epidemic in 1983, the girls claimed that they had been poisoned, although the doctors who checked them found no evidence of this. Then the Arabs began to make charges that maybe, and then certainly, it was Israelis who had poisoned the girls. They also presented the reason — the fantastic story that the Jews have an interest in countering the high Palestinian birthrate so they specifically targeted young girls approaching the age of marriage. The poisoning was done to harm this most fertile age group in order to limit Arab demographic growth. They even said they had found medical proof, claiming that urine tests showed a high protein level, which means that something is abnormal in the fertility system.
They began to build all kinds of theories and enlisted statements from Arab doctors. Then, amazingly, the Israeli newspapers began asking why the Jews, who were killed in the gas chambers, would do something like this, and there were calls for an investigation of the actions of the then-Likud government of Menachem Begin. The Arabs saw the Israelis themselves accusing their own government and raised the tone of their accusations even higher.
Baruch Modan, the director-general of the Health Ministry and one of the leading epidemiologists in Israel, headed an investigation team and, of course, found nothing. At a press conference he announced that there was no evidence of poisoning and that this was nothing more than a case of mass hysteria. But in this case the foreign journalists refused to accept the professional opinion of a well-respected doctor.
The Palestinians became bolder and offered still more proof. Yellow powder was found on the window sills. Dr. Modan and his team had checked the powder and found it to be from nearby pine trees, but this did not convince the foreign journalists who kept on saying that the Israelis were guilty.
However, the Israeli media started to backtrack because Dr. Modan is indeed a respected authority. Suddenly a spate of articles began appearing on the history of blood libels and protesting that here, too, on the eve of Pesach, they are acting toward us just as they did in the Middle Ages, with accusations of poisoning the wells. It was amazing — within ten days the Israeli press went from self-accusation to massive self-defense. That is the Israeli side of Rashomon.
The Story Grows
On the Palestinian side, doctors reported on the signs which indicated that there must have been mass poisoning. The accusations increased and were adopted by the leadership of the PLO, which in 1983 had been deported from Lebanon to Tunisia.
The Palestinians then took out their secret weapon. They saw the massive damage this negative publicity was doing to Israel and they received international encouragement, so they began to send girls to pretend to faint. They prepared trucks in advance, and when the girls got to school they would be put on the trucks, with the journalists and photographers following them to the hospital. As soon as the foreign journalists left, according to Israeli journalists who were following the story, the girls would get up out of bed. Yet the Arabs saw how much they could get out of this hoax and turned it into a true story which they encouraged.
The International Perspective
The third side of this Rashomon story is the interest of the international organizations and the international media. The French newspapers Liberation and Le Monde headlined that there was evidence that Israel had poisoned the children. The presentation of Dr. Modan was called a weak attempt by the Israelis to hide their crime. In the UN, the Security Council came out with a harsh statement against Israel — how could Israel allow such a thing to happen? The entire story was taken as based on reality and the entire affair just got bigger, involving the Arab League and the Islamic Conference.
Finally, Israel formally asked the International Red Cross and the World Health Organization to come and investigate. The International Red Cross representative came and issued a weak statement that he did not find evidence. When he was asked why he did not make a stronger statement, and thus let the hoax stand, he replied that this is not the job of the International Red Cross. If the Palestinians suffered, they must have suffered from something real, and if they did not suffer from poisoning, then they suffered from the “poison of occupation.” Afterwards, the International Red Cross was asked to publicize its findings. They wrote back saying that it was not their policy to publicize their findings, although if they had been against Israel, the findings would have been publicized immediately.
Eventually, the world-renowned Center for Disease Control in Atlanta reported on the results of its investigation. The U.S. experts concluded that this was indeed a case of mass hysteria, a phenomenon similar to teenage girls fainting at rock concerts.
Apart from the New York Times, which buried a retraction of its accusations against Israel in the back pages, no other newspaper bothered to do even that. Israeli ambassadors in a number of countries asked local newspapers to print a story of correction, but they were ignored. So a case of mass hysteria was exploited by the Palestinians into a major international affair, with great success.
The Politics of Human Rights
A while after this event, the Palestinian representative to the Human Rights Commission in Geneva declared to the Commission that Israelis had spread the AIDS virus to 300 Palestinian children in order to destroy an entire generation as part of an Israeli plan of genocide. This is the very same claim as in the poisoning episode. Of course no member of the Commission, except for the Israeli representative, protested or said anything. Then the Israeli representative asked the chairman of the Commission, who was Czech, how he could allow the body which he headed to remain silent in the face of such an accusation, which becomes a part of the minutes of the UN. The chairman then wrote a letter to the members of the Commission saying that the accusation was never proven and that all members of the Commission should avoid making unsubstantiated charges in the future.
The same evening, five members of the Commission from countries famous for human rights such as Iraq and Sudan demanded that the chairman retract his letter, claiming he had no authority to annul what any representative had said, and warned him that he would be removed from office if he did not comply. So he wrote another letter canceling his original letter.
The Sterilizing Bubble Gum
In 1997 the Palestinians exposed yet another Israeli “plot to suppress Arab population growth.” They claimed to have tested packets of strawberry-flavored bubble gum which were found to be spiked with sex hormones and sold at low prices near schoolhouses in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It was claimed that the gum aroused irresistible sexual appetites in women, then it sterilized them. According to Palestinian Supply Minister Abdel Aziz Shaheen, it was capable of “completely destroying the genetic system of young boys,” as well.
In this case, Palestinians allege, Israel came with chewing gum laced with progesterone, one of the two hormones of femaleness. The hormone, they say inaccurately, drives women wild with desire and serves as a contraceptive, too — corrupting Arab women while ensuring they cannot reproduce. The story was reminiscent of a furor over Israeli chewing gum a year earlier in Egypt. The story grew with the retelling. Shaheen contended that the gum was sold “only at the gates of primary schools or kindergartens,” because Israelis “want to destroy our genetic system” by giving sex hormones to children before their bodies can cope with them. By the time the story reached Hebron in the West Bank, local health official Mahmoud Batarna claimed to have captured 200 tons of gum.
The Washington Post commissioned a test of allegedly contaminated chewing gum provided by Palestinian health officials. Dan Gibson, professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at Hebrew University and a member of the left-wing lobby group Peace Now, said that, using a mass spectrometer capable of detecting as little as a microgram of progesterone, he found none in the gum.1
The pattern of miracle literature is repeated time and time again in the Arab world and there is no end to it. There are two Israeli teams in Egypt that have been doing exceptional work developing desert agriculture in that country, and they have produced amazing results. Yet the hostile Egyptian media have accused the Israelis of poisoning the land and destroying Egyptian agriculture.
In June 1997, the Palestinian El Quds newspaper reported the accusation by the head of the Criminal Division of the Palestinian Police in Nablus that the Israeli security services operated a ring of AIDS-infected Israeli prostitutes sent to infect the Palestinian people.2
These are just a few of the hoaxes that have been used as propaganda tools against Israel. Some twenty such events are detailed and explained in Poison: Modern Manifestations of the Blood Libel, a new book just released by Lexington Books. It documents the story of modern blood libel against the Jews and Israel, involving not only Arabs and Muslims but also the European media and world organizations.
Blood Libel as a Form of Warfare
During the current Palestinian offensive, Yasser Arafat has for many months been accusing Israel of using weapons of depleted uranium against Palestinians, and told the French paper l’Humanite (21 Feb 2002) that this information was confirmed by the U.S., although the U.S. has never confirmed any such claims. In a speech broadcast by El-Jezira TV on 27 March 2002, Arafat charged Israel’s army with using depleted uranium gasses and even toxic waste. Israel was also accused of distributing booby trapped or poisoned sweets across the West Bank to kill children.
The international calls for an investigation into Israel’s conduct in Jenin, during its offensive in response to Palestinian “Islamikaze”3 bombings in Israeli cities, follow all too closely the pattern of world support for the Palestinian fabrications described above. Sadly, we are once again witness to yet another round of blood libel as part of the ongoing Arab war against Israel.
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1. Barton Gellman, “Pop! Went the Tale of the Bubble Gum Spiked With Sex Hormones,” Washington Post, July 28, 1997, p. A14.
2. Maariv, Shabbat, 27 June 1997, p. 19.
3. “Islamikaze” is a word coined by the author combining the words “kamikaze” and “Islam,” to signify that the so-called “suicide” bombers have nothing suicidal about them, but that they, just like the Japanese kamikaze before them, are intent on mass killing of the enemy, with the difference being that the kamikaze operated against military targets while the Islamikaze acts mainly against innocent civilians.
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Raphael Israeli is a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and Professor of Chinese History and Islamic Civilization at Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He is the author of numerous books and articles including Fundamentalist Islam and Israel: Essays in Interpretation (JCPA and University Press of America, 1993), A Critical Biography of Chinese Islam (1994), Poison: Modern Manifestations of the Blood Libel (Lexington, 2002), Green Crescent Over Nazareth (Frank Cass, 2002), and Jerusalem Divided: The Armistice Regime 1947-1967 (Frank Cass, 2002).
This Jerusalem Viewpoints is based on the author’s presentation at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs as part of the follow-up program to the First Herbert Berman Memorial Symposium on the attitude of the world toward the Jews after the Holocaust.