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Manfred Gerstenfeld on Poison: Modern Manifestations of a Blood Libel

Filed under: Antisemitism, Palestinians
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 17:1-2 (Spring 2005)



More than twenty years ago, a case of mass hysteria broke out on the West Bank. In March 1983, a number of girls at a middle school in the village of Arrabeh in the northern West Bank fell sick. Their symptoms included fainting, drowsiness, nausea, headaches, stomachaches, and vision disturbances. Almost immediately afterward, Palestinians living in the disputed territories, in a modern variant of the blood-libel motif that descends directly from the Christian anti- Jewish tradition of the Middle Ages, accused Israel of being responsible. Raphael Israeli, a specialist in Islamic civilization who teaches at the Hebrew University, analyzes the event and its implications in his book Poison.

During the following weeks the number of patients, most of whom were young women, rose to nearly a thousand in Jenin, Hebron, and elsewhere in the West Bank. However, the symptoms of almost all of them disappeared rapidly. Investigations carried out by both Palestinians and Israelis did not find any traces of poison. Gradually, it came to light that many of the later “patients” had faked their illnesses, often at the prompting of Palestinian leaders.

More important than the medical aspects of this case were the political reactions of the media and international institutions. In the ensuing, hate-filled campaign, many players came forward who would later, in the first and second Palestinian uprisings, knowingly or unknowingly diffuse false information and anti-Israeli propaganda on a large scale.

In one of its initial articles on the event, the Israeli daily Haaretz implied that there were indications Israel had used nerve gas. Several Israeli Arab parliamentarians falsely claimed that the Israeli government had imposed a state of siege around Jenin and that its civilian population was fleeing in panic. The secretary-general of the Arab League accused Israel of using poison gas against Palestinian pupils. After several days of investigations, however, the Israeli Health Ministry announced that while the first pupils had truly fallen sick, most of the other cases were the result of mass hysteria. The Israeli authorities called in experts from the Center for the Research of the Prevention of Disease in Atlanta, a world leader in epidemiology. They concluded that most of the patients’ illnesses were of “psychogenic origin and induced by stress.” They mentioned that the initial Arrabeh case could have been caused by a low concentration of hydrogen sulfide gas from a poorly cleaned latrine at the school.

The International Red Cross and the World Health Organization also carried out investigations. Although they found no proof of poisoning or anything similar, in their reporting they showed anti- Israeli bias. In early April the UN Security Council, prompted by Iraq, adopted a resolution to “investigate the mass poisoning.” Even the United States supported this measure despite the fact that there was no proof at all that there had been any poisoning.

The PLO stated that the claims of poisoning were supported by various Palestinian bodies, including the Higher Islamic Committee, the Union of Chambers of Commerce, and other charities. The Arab League’s Council accused Israel of using chemicals to poison students of secondary schools in the territories. Various Arab sources charged that Israel had practiced genocide and chemical warfare aimed at damaging the girls’ reproductive systems.

Israeli also analyzes the reporting of various media. In retrospect, it is not surprising that among the worst distorters of the truth were French dailies such as the Communist L’Humanite, the socialist inclined Libération, and Le Monde. None of these apologized after the facts became known. The New York Times was one of the few media outlets that did so, but even that was only on an inside page. In the more than twenty years that have passed since the mass hysteria case, there have been many similar Arab campaigns whose core element was a major lie. One was the Palestinian propaganda that accused Israeli soldiers of killing the child Muhammad Al-Dura. It is now known that it is much more probable that he was shot by Palestinians. Another example is the massive propaganda campaign in the Arab world claiming that the Mossad was behind the attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.

To date, the campaign of lies and fabrications has reached its height with the IDF operation Defensive Shield against the terror infrastructure in Jenin in April 2002. The role of many British newspapers in propagating false accusations against Israel was exposed by the British journalist Tom Gross in his article “Jeningate” and by the Canadian filmmaker Martin Himel in his documentary Massacring the Truth. The latter shows, among other things, another type of Palestinian fabrication: after a funeral procession of a supposed victim of the massacre, the “dead person” jumps off the stretcher once he thinks he is out of the camera’s range.

There is an enduring need for a searching analysis of the fragmented yet total war the Arab world is waging against Israel and the Jewish people, as well as the collaboration of Western media and institutions. This applies both to motifs and methods. Such an analysis could be based partly on existing research, which, for example, would include Deborah Lipstadt’s studies on Holocaust denial, Belgian political scientist Joeël Kotek’s examination of anti-Semitic Arabic cartoons, French linguist Georges Elia Sarfati’s analysis of anti-Israeli semantics, and British lawyer Trevor Asserson’s investigation of the BBC’s reporting on Israel. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has produced a major institutional contribution on the subject of anti-Semitism on the Internet.

Israeli’s paradigmatic case study is important for several reasons. Beyond his analysis of a particular case, he reveals how the methodology of Arab hate propaganda has been in use for many years. His contribution will be even more valuable if it is part of a larger study of the Arab libels against Israel that have been spread with the willing and uncritical collaboration of Western media, governments, and international bodies.