Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism: Book Reviews
Manfred Gerstenfeld on
Poison: Modern Manifestations of a Blood Libel
by Raphael Israeli
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
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
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 Joeel 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
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
The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect
those of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.