Organ Donation and Theft in Contemporary Jewish Folklore By Gilad Atzmon
Aug 30th, 2009
Donation According to Larry David
In his highly acclaimed TV satire ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’, LA screen writer and comedian Larry David engages courageously with subjects to do with American Jewish identity. In his fifth season (2005) David tackles the subject of organ donation (1). Performing an American eccentric and egotistical Jew David is confronted with a serious dilemma. His best friend Richard Lewis (another Jewish comedian) happens to suffer an acute kidney failure. His survival is dependent on an urgent kidney donation and as one may expect Larry David is the perfect donor. David, who comes across as the ultimate selfish persona in American popular culture is obviously reluctant to donate his Kidney. He procrastinates, finds excuses and plays games. He even tries to make friends with a wealthy Orthodox Jew who is in a position to ‘sort things out’ as far as kidneys are concerned. He does it all just to avoid donating his own kidney to his best and closest friend.
As the plot develops, David has hired a Private Detective to discover who his real parents are, David learns from this private detective that he is actually an adopted child. Once meeting with his genetic parents David also finds out that he is not exactly a Jew. He is actually a proper Christian of Scottish descent. David is very excited about his new ethnic identity and faith. Instantly, without giving it too much of a thought, he becomes an empathetic person. His egotistic attitude disappears without leaving any traces. He suddenly cares about others. He evolves into a sympathetic boring compassionate ordinary human being. It doesn’t take more than a few scenes before we see David attending Sunday service with his new ‘parents’ in their local Church. It is there where he learns from the priest that ‘to give’ is actually ‘to receive’.
David doesn’t waste a second. He understands it all. He instantly leaves the Church and takes the first plane to LA where he rushes to the Hospital with one thing in his mind; giving his kidney to his best friend Richard Lewis. In the hospital while in his final preparation for the transplant operation the nurse is overwhelmed by David’s devotion kindness and conviction. Throughout this transition into Christianity, the Larry David that we meet is very different to the selfish Larry David we knew. However, David’s heavenly inspired humanist metamorphosis doesn’t last long. On his way to the theatre, as he is lying on the trolley already under some heavy anesthetic, the private detective is seen rushing towards David along the hospital corridor. “Larry I made a mistake” he shouts, “you are not an adopted child.” In spite of the anesthetic, the penny drops instantly. David realises that he is a Jew. His Christian compassionate conviction fades immediately. His reaction is rather simultaneous: he is a Jew after all and Jews do not give their organs to others, not even to their best and closest friends. David, who is now heavily anesthetized tries to resist, he wants to run away and never to give his kidney but under the influence of heavy narcotics he happens to be too weak. Dragged into the theater he happens to be a victim of his own temporary non-Jewish kindness.
The immediate message posed by Larry David in the above episode is clear. Being a Jew is merely a state of mind. It is neither biological nor genetic. The transformation between (Christian) compassion and (Jewish) narcissism is rather cultural. It is almost a matter of choice. However, one thing is clear as far as Larry David is concerned: once transforming back into a Jew, ‘giving’ is simply out of the question. The Jew, as far as David is concerned, does not like to share, donate or give.
Harvesting Human Organs
In the last few weeks we have been following some interesting developments to do with Israeli organ theft and Jewish organ trafficking. Back in July Kidney trafficker Levy Izhak Rosenbaum from Brooklyn was arrested in New Jersey. The Federal complaint suggested that he was involved in the illegal sale of kidneys for 10 years(2). A US Attorney explained: "His business was to entice vulnerable people to give up a kidney for $10,000 which he would turn around and sell for $160,000." Also in July another group of 30 Israelis were arrested in Romania, this time it was for human Egg trafficking. They were suspected of recruiting Romanian women aged between 18 and 30 and paying them around $300 for their eggs”. They would then resale the eggs for 40 times that amount to women
Earlier this week Alison Weir published a shocking yet comprehensive and detailed review of Israeli human organ trafficking and theft. Weir brings to light some staggering cases of organ theft. She starts with an alleged case of a heart being pulled out of a living person without the consent of the family (2). She also brings to light continuous reports of organs being robbed from Palestinian’s bodies (3)
The increasing attention to Israeli organ theft was fuelled a week ago by Swedish veteran journalist Donald Bostrom’s publication of an exposé of Israeli alleged organ harvesting in Sweden’s biggest paper Aftonbladet. Palestinians, he says, “harbor strong suspicions against Israel for seizing young men and having them serve as the country’s organ reserve”
From Venice to Tel Aviv
One may ask why it is that organ trafficking has become a ‘Jewish thing’. How is it that the Jewish state and Jewish people are so involved in such a repugnant and non ethical trade. One answer is probably obvious: it is a good business and there is hardly any competition, not many people are willing to make a living out of the trafficking or the theft of livers and kidneys.
Without being a Marxist, I may try to offer a materialist interpretation of the above. As it happens, some people out there are willing to pay a lot of money to stay amongst the living. At the same time some others are ready to give their body parts just to put bread on their tables. Naturally those two distinct groups of people (the selfish wealthiest and the penniless) have very little in common except biological similarity. They never meet and hardly mix. A broker is needed. A merchant that doesn’t belong to any class whatsoever, a person that is not part of the economic chain of production, a person that is ethically detached, a person that is foreign to humanity as well as humanism. As we learn above the perfect candidates have been found. And they are not alone, their Jewish state is there to facilitate it all. It is there to provide the necessary means in terms of technology and knowledge. The Jewish broker can deal with the rich, he can easily handle the poor, he can do it all as long as there is some money to be made: once a merchant always a merchant whether it is Venice, Tel Aviv, Bucharest, New Jersey or Brooklyn.
But it goes further. As we learn from Larry David’s kidney episode, once rediscovering he is a Jew, his willingness to donate his organ fades into total refusal. David’s behavior is supported by some devastating statistics. Apparently, Israel is the world's leading procurer of vital organs from other countries, at least for its size. “Just 3.5% of Israelis are registered organ donors. Israel’s donor rate is one-fifth that of Europe so they acquire vital organs from other cultures. The Israeli government helps by paying up to $80,000 each to those visiting other countries to purchase an organ. Brokers openly advertise their services on Israeli radio stations and in newspapers.” (4)
Judaism may throw some light over the abnormal situation. In principle, the Judaic law poses strong objections to any interference with the body after death. Out of respect to the dead (kvod hamet), Judaism requires an immediate burial of the complete body. However, this humanist and respectful approach applies to Jewish dead only. Things get slightly more complicated because Judaism also encourages organ donation in order to save a ‘Jewish life’ (pikuach nefesh).
The solution of what seems as an opposing dualism is far from being too complicated. While Judaism leads its followers towards reluctance to donate their organs it approves or even encourages the usage of other people’s organs. Bearing in mind Israel is a prosperous state in terms of medical science, it is just natural that the Jewish state would harbor all those shady practices to do with organ trafficking and theft. More interestingly, in spite of much of Israel regarding itself as a secular society, when it comes to organ donation it seems as if the Jews prefer to follow God collectively. Larry David’s reluctance to donate his kidney once realizing that he is a Jew by origin is there to emphasize that unique Jewish ‘choose and pick’ attitude towards their religious code. Secular Jews are becoming orthodox when it is convenient.
Back in the 1980’s Israel’s all time leading cabaret act, namely ‘Ha- Gashash Ha-chiver’ elaborated on the subject of organ donation by means of a satire. In their comedy act, an Ashkenazi transplant master insisted to plant a goose’s liver in an (Jewish) Iraqi boy’s body just to gain some publicity. The Sepharadi father was rather devastated, he was concerned that the donated liver would come from an Ashkenazi person or even a goy. Needless to say he wasn’t too happy with the goose either. As time goes by, it seems as if the Jews as a collective have passed that stage. As much as some Jews may be very ‘picky’ in regard to what they put in their mouth (kosher diet) or even very concerned with the racial identity of those whom their kids mix with, they seem to be far less concerned with the origin of the organs that are planted in their bodies. They are concerned with one thing, staying amongst the living regardless of any ethical concern.
The current organ theft scandal proves once again that as far as Israel is concerned, loving yourself as much as you hate your neighbor, is the manifestation of contemporary Jewish philosophy. At the end of the day, it shouldn’t take us by a complete surprise. This is what you would expect from a people who live on other people’s land and eat other people’s grapes and figs.
(1) Season 5 episodes 2,5 and 10
Synopsis can be found here:
(2) In December 1968 a man named Avraham Sadegat (the New York Times seems to give his name as A Savgat) died two days after a stroke, even though his family had been told he was “doing well.”
After initially refusing to release his body, the Israeli hospital where he was being treated finally turned the man’s body over to his family. They discovered that his upper body was wrapped in bandages; an odd situation, they felt, for someone who had suffered a stroke.
When they removed the bandages, they discovered that the chest cavity was stuffed with bandages, and the heart was missing.
During this time, the headline-making Israeli heart transplant had occurred. After their initial shock, the man’s wife and brother began to put the two events together and demanded answers.
The hospital at first denied that Sadegat’s heart had been used in the headline-making transplant, but the family raised a media storm and eventually applied to three cabinet ministers. Finally, weeks later and after the family had signed a document promising not to sue, the hospital admitted that Sadagat’s heart had been used.
(3) “"There are indications that for one reason or another, organs, especially eyes and kidneys, were removed from the bodies during the first year or year and a half. There were just too many reports by credible people for there to be nothing happening. If someone is shot in the head and comes home in a plastic bag without internal organs, what will people assume?”
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 1990, Page 21, The Intifada: Autopsies and Executions