[News] Body Parts and Bio-Piracy - Israel's National Forensic Institute

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Oct 25 14:14:01 EDT 2010


http://www.counterpunch.org/
October 25, 2010


Exclusive CounterPunch Report


Tissue, Skin, Bone and Organ Harvesting at 
Israel's National Forensic Institute


Body Parts and Bio-Piracy

By NANCY SCHEPER-HUGHES

Editorial Note: Nancy Scheper-Hughes is professor 
of anthropology at the University of California, 
Berkeley, where she directs the doctoral program 
in medicine and society. Since 1996, she has been 
involved in active field research on the global 
traffic in human organs, following the movement 
of bodies, body parts, transplant doctors, their 
patients, brokers, and kidney sellers, and the 
practices of organ and tissue harvesting in 
several countries – from Brazil, Argentina, and 
Cuba, to Moldova, Israel and Turkey, to India, 
South Africa, and the United States. She is a 
co-founder of Organs Watch, an independent, 
medical human rights, research and documentation center at UC Berkeley.

What follows is her detailed report on the 
tissue, skin, bone and organ harvesting conducted 
for many years at Israel’s L. Greenberg National 
Institute of Forensic Medicine, a.k.a. The Abu 
Kabir Institute, under the aegis of its former 
director and current chief pathologist, Dr. 
Yehuda Hiss. Long before Donald Boström leveled 
allegations of organ-harvesting from Palestinians 
in the Swedish tabloid, Aftonbladet, in August 
2009, causing furious accusations of “blood 
libel,” Dr. Scheper-Hughes had already 
interviewed Dr. Hiss and had on tape the 
interview that forms part of her report here.

Dr. Scheper-Hughes says her purpose here is to 
refute the controversial official statements of 
the Ministry of Health and the IDF that while 
there may have been irregularities at the 
National Forensic Institute, they have long since 
ended. To this day, she says, they have failed to 
acknowledge, punish, or rectify various medical 
human rights abuses, past and present at the 
National Forensic Institute. While many of the 
allegations are widely known, the testimony by 
Israeli state pathologist and IDF (reserve) Lt. 
Col. Chen Kugel has never been published in 
English and his allegations are known only within 
Israel. Dr. Scheper-Hughes invited Dr. Kugel to 
speak publicly on this topic in the U.S. on May 6, 2010.

There are three lawsuits ongoing in Israel at the 
present moment concerning the Forensic Institute 
and Dr. Hiss. Two concerns alleged abuses against 
the dead bodies of Israeli citizens. The third 
concerns Rachel Corrie, a U.S. citizen who was 
killed in Gaza in 2003 while protesting the 
demolition of houses. Transcripts of court 
proceedings show that Corrie’s autopsy was 
conducted in contravention of an Israeli court 
order that an official from the U.S. Embassy be 
present. These transcripts also show Dr. Hiss 
conceding that he had kept samples from Corrie’s 
body without her family’s knowledge. Dr. Hiss 
also testified that he was uncertain where these 
samples now are. For his part, Dr. Kugel asserts 
that  abuses at the Institute continue to this day.

The Scheper-Hughes article takes care to note Dr. 
Kugel’s description of his former mentor, Dr. 
Hiss, as  a man who saw himself as willing 
to  take great personal and professional risks 
“to serve a noble end
 to help the war-wounded 
victims of terrorist attacks,”  with his actions 
“as something sublime, or even heroic, as a modern-day Robin Hood.” AC/JSC

In July 2009, I was identified as the 
“whistle-blower” in the arrest by New Jersey FBI 
agents of a Brooklyn organs trafficker, an 
orthodox rabbi, Isaac Rosenbaum,1,2 whose 
unorthodox business activities I had uncovered 
several years earlier while investigating an 
international network of outlaw transplant 
surgeons, their brokers, lawyers, kidney hunters, 
insurance and travel agents, safe house 
operators, and “baby sitters” to mind sick and 
anxious international “transplant tourists.” The 
particular criminal network, in which Rosenbaum 
played a bit part, originated in Israel through a 
“company” run by a well-known crime boss Ilan 
Peri, who had over the years established shady 
transplant deals and kidney transplant outlets 
and connections in Turkey, Moldova, the Ukraine, 
Brazil, Germany, South Africa, the Philippines, 
China, Kosovo, Azerbaijan, Columbia, and the United States.3

The arrests, amidst gunfire in the operating 
rooms, of two of Ilan Peri’s transplant 
associates – Dr. Zaki Shapira, formerly of Rabin 
Medical Center, Petach Tikva, Israel, and his 
Turkish associate Dr. Yusuf Sonmez – in a private 
hospital in Istanbul in 20074 gave pause to the 
Israeli Ministry of Health which, until then, had 
permitted Israeli sick funds (medical insurance) 
to reimburse living donors overseas with 
transplants, many of them trafficked from the 
former Soviet Union countries. The kidney sellers 
captured in the Turkish shootout, however, were 
two Palestinians, Omar Abu Gaber, age 42, and 
Zaheda Mahammid, age 26. The organ recipients 
were an Israeli man of 68, Zeev Vigdor, and a 
younger South African man, John Richard Halford, 
who were filmed on Turkish TV being carried out 
of the operating room on stretchers and taken to 
another hospital before being returned home, 
without the transplants they had so desired.

After his release from a German prison in 2007, 
Peri returned to Israel, where he was 
investigated for tax fraud,5 detained, but 
released because Israel’s organ-transplant laws 
were murky with respect to the legality of 
“brokering” overseas transplants using paid 
donors. In 2008, two new laws were passed by the 
Israeli Parliament (Knesset): one that paved the 
way for applying brain death criteria that would 
satisfy the ultraorthodox, and the other that 
outlaws buying, selling and brokering organs for 
transplant.6 The Ministry of Health no longer 
reimburses overseas transplants unless they are 
legal. Peri continues to organize transplant 
tours, but today, he claims, using only deceased 
donor organs and legal pathways.

In its heyday (1997-2007), the Israeli transplant 
tourism/organ-trafficking network was an 
ingenious and extremely lucrative 
multimillion-dollar program that supplied a few 
thousand Israeli patients and diasporic Jews 
worldwide with the “fresh” organs and transplants 
they needed. With Rosenbaum’s arrest, the U.S. 
media were suddenly interested in the 
Israeli-based transplant-trafficking scheme, now 
that there was a proven link to hospitals in New York City.

The NYC Commissioner of Health and the FBI, whom 
I alerted years earlier about the Rosenbaum 
transplant gang, had dismissed the information as 
lacking credibility. How could patients and 
kidney sellers from two different countries be 
smuggled into hospitals for illegal transplants? 
How would they get through the red tape required 
for any transplant operation? It sounded like an 
old wives’ tale, an urban legend, or a blood 
libel against Jewish surgeons and their patients. 
And that was the worst suspicion of all.

Although the criminal justice system refused to 
believe the story I gave them, transplant 
surgeons working in hospitals in the U.S. who had 
been approached by Ilan Peri and his associates, 
including Isaac Rosenbaum, knew it to be true and 
knew that some of their colleagues were complicit 
in transplant crimes that ranged from violating 
the National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA) in the 
buying and selling organs, to fraud, deception, 
money laundering, taking bribes, participating in 
organized crime and human trafficking. The 
Rosenbaum case, still in preparation, will be the 
first U.S. federal prosecution of crimes related to organs trafficking.7

The Aftonbladet Story Breaks

Then, in August 2009, another organ-trafficking 
story broke, one that linked Rosenbaum’s 
U.S.-Israel organ-brokering and money-laundering 
schemes with much older allegations of 
organ-and-tissue stealing from the bodies of 
Palestinian “terrorists” and stone throwers’ 
following autopsy at Israel’s National Forensic 
Institute in Abu Kabir, a neighborhood of Tel 
Aviv. These allegations, dating back to the early 
1990s, were recycled by a Swedish journalist 
Donald Boström in a left-leaning Swedish tabloid, 
Aftonbladet, on August 17, 2009.8

Headlined “Our Sons Plundered for Their Organs,” 
Boström’s feature story was a mix of organ-theft 
accusations, seemingly coincidental connections, 
and political rhetoric. The information was based 
on Boström’s research in Israel and the Occupied 
Territories during the first Intifada, and his 
award-winning book, Inshallah,9 published in 
2001, where Bostrom first introduced the 
allegations of body tampering and 
organ-and-tissue theft from Palestinian dead 
brought for autopsy to the Abu Kabir Forensic 
Institute. Boström’s article suggested that 
Palestinian bodies were being harvested as the “spoils of war.”

The Aftonbladet story, instantly translated into 
Hebrew and English, created a firestorm of 
protest that included a libel lawsuit by 
anti-defamation lawyers in New York City and a 
boycott of Swedish industries. Boström was 
labeled an anti-Semite, and the story he “dredged 
up from the sewer” was labeled a despicable 
“blood libel” against Israel and the world’s Jews.

I read these news reports with mounting dread. 
Like Boström, I was once greeted during a 
research visit to Israel in 2003 with an ugly 
headline and centerfold ( “New Blood Libel on 
French TV – Israel Steals Kidneys of Orphan 
Children in Moldova”) in Makor Rishon, a 
right-wing tabloid.10 The feature story reviewed 
an hour-long TV documentary by French filmmaker 
Catherine Bentellier, Kidneys Worth their Weight 
in Gold. I had traveled with the filmmaker to 
Moldova in 2001, where we interviewed people in 
villages that had been ravaged by organs 
traffickers targeting young men and trafficking 
them to Turkey, the Ukraine and Georgia as paid, 
sometimes coerced, kidney providers to Israeli 
transplant patients. The “blood libel” accusation 
featured medieval woodcuts and a blurry photo of 
me patting the hand of a Moldovan orphan in his crib.

With respect to the Swedish “blood libel” against 
the National Forensic Institute at Abu Kabir, the 
main issue that wasn’t raised in the avalanche of 
articles, editorials, and news columns published 
in Israel, Europe and the United States was one 
simple question, “Was the organ theft story 
true?” And were there any grounds for linking the 
tissue theft from the dead to the organization of 
illicit transplant tours for Israeli patients? 
Were there any grounds for linking the one story with another?

Introducing Dr Yehuda Hiss

I knew the answer. In July 2000, while studying 
the growth of organized transplant tours run by 
underworld brokers in Israel, I conducted a 
formal, audiotaped interview with the director of 
Israel’s National Forensic Institute, Dr. Yehuda 
Hiss, at Abu Kabir, in which he openly and freely 
discussed the “informal” procurement of organs 
and tissues from the bodies of the dead brought 
to the Institute for examination and autopsy. 
Hiss described a kind of “presumed” consent, one 
invented by him and shared with no one except, by 
example, with his medical students and residents 
and interns. He pursued a quiet policy of 
aggressive tissue, bone, skin, and organ 
harvesting, purportedly for the greater good of 
his country, a country at war, and for the good 
of his countryman. Professor Hiss, viewed by many 
Israelis and by the New York Times as a hero 
because of his service to the nation in handling 
bodies killed by terrorists and suicide bombers, 
deemed his behavior as patriotic. He was, in his 
own mind, not so much “above the law,” as 
representing the law, a much higher law, his law, 
supremely cool, rational, and scientifically and 
technically correct. The country was at war, 
blood was being spilled everyday, soldiers were 
being burned, and yet Israelis refused to provide 
tissues and organs needed. So, he would take matters into his own hands.

The taped interview was a smoking gun, but I 
feared the unintended consequences of making it 
public. The tape sat, more or less untouched, in 
my archives for ten years. But now it was 
necessary to set the record straight. But before 
I did so, I wanted to give professor Hiss a 
chance to explain, or even to correct, the things 
he had admitted to in the 2000 interview. Prior 
to leaving for a research trip in 
September-October 2009, accompanied by Dan Rather 
and his team for a news report on the criminal 
networks built around organ trafficking in 
Turkey, Moldova, and Israel, I contacted Yehuda 
Hiss in Israel (through one of my several Israeli 
research assistants) requesting a follow-up interview.

The Ministry of Health thwarted his initial 
acceptance. A private interview in his home was 
proposed, but Hiss (and his lawyers) wanted to 
review beforehand any questions I wished to 
raise. Then the Ministry of Health denied Hiss 
permission to speak with me at all, under any 
circumstances. While being interviewed about the 
effects of the changes in transplant laws and 
practices, several medical and transplant 
colleagues in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem often 
interjected disparaging references to the 
“despicable blood libel by the Swedish media,” 
even though they knew full well – and knew that I 
knew – that tucked inside Boström’s tabloid story 
was a real medical and political scandal of 
international proportions. I understood their 
nervousness about the topic, but not their denial 
of a known fact that was being manipulated into a 
global political tool of the Israeli government.

Just before returning to the United States, I met 
with Meira Weiss, a distinguished anthropologist 
and former professor at Hebrew University, and 
Chen Kugel, M.D., a forensic pathologist who had 
worked side by side with his mentor, Yehuda Hiss, 
at the Institute. Both Weiss and Dr. Kugel urged 
me to write a rebuttal to those in Israel who 
were “crying wolf” and using blood libel 
accusations to bludgeon their critics into 
submission. Weiss reminded me of the taped 
interview, done in 2000, with Dr. Hiss, as she 
herself had arranged the interview and was 
present during it, and she was as stunned as I 
was at the boldness and arrogance of Hiss’ 
revelations. Chen Kugel, a military officer 
(reserve) and former forensic pathologist at the 
Institute, agreed that the truth should be told 
to the global community, though perhaps not by 
them. Both had suffered enough. Both had been forced out of their jobs.

My interview with Yehuda Hiss at the Institute 
had come about in the following circumstances. In 
July 2000, three years into the Organs Watch 
project, I was given a file and a photo by an 
Israeli human rights lawyer, Lynda Brayer, at her 
organization’s headquarters in Bethlehem. The 
Society of St. Yves was created to provide legal 
assistance to Palestinian families, whose 
relatives had suffered the demolition of their 
homes, forced removals, and other abuses. The 
organization was then representing the family of 
Abdel Karim Abdel Musalmeh, who was shot in the 
head on November 8, 1995, by IDF snipers. The 
single bullet that killed Abdel is clearly 
indicated in the photo, which was part of the 
autopsy record. A military order for the 
demolition of Musalmeh’s home in Beit Awa, a 
village outside of Hebron, preceded his murder by 
the IDF as a “wanted person on the run.” The 
lawyers were arguing a case to allow the home to 
stand, so that Abdel’s widow and their six 
children would not be homeless. If murder and 
dispossession were not enough, Musalmeh’s body 
was returned to his wife in tatters. The autopsy 
report attributed death by rifle shot to brain. 
Why, then, was the body subjected to a total 
dissection and the removal of cornea and skin? I agreed to look into it.

When I first shared this information and the 
graphic photo with Meira Weiss, she reassured me 
at that time that there was no organ or tissue 
harvesting at the Institute. She had witnessed 
hundreds of autopsies – of Israelis, Arabs, 
Arab-Israelis, Russian immigrants, foreigners, 
and Palestinians. While bodies were opened and 
organs examined, they were returned to the body, 
except for small tissue samples as needed for 
forensic examination in the laboratories above 
the morgue. There were practices Weiss had 
observed that were not in compliance with 
international codes of ethics and internal law, 
the 1975 Helsinki Accords on the use of human 
subjects.11 There were acts of deviance by 
certain staff members. Tattoos, for example, were 
sometimes removed with a knife from the bodies of 
new immigrants to Israel, mostly Russian and 
Ukrainian, always suspect of nor being Jewish 
enough. Tattoos gave them away, and so they were 
treated with hostility. Penises might be 
circumcised, postmortem, without the knowledge or 
consent of relatives. The bodies of Jews and 
Muslims were treated differently. When 
Palestinians were brought in, following conflict, 
they were subjected to a complete autopsy, as 
required to produce information for the 
Palestinian Authority. On the other hand, the 
bodies of Israeli soldiers were respected, and 
autopsies were often discreet and partial.

Allegations About the Forensic Institute

The National Institute of Forensic Medicine at 
Abu Kabir, a Tel Aviv suburb, is Israel’s 
national depository of dead bodies requiring 
identification, examination, and autopsy. It 
serves two purposes, on the one hand, as a 
scientific institute affiliated with the Sackler 
School of Medicine (Tel Aviv University), through 
which it operates a state-of-the-art genetics 
laboratory. On the other hand, the Institute is 
controlled and closely supervised by the chevra 
kadisha – the orthodox religious organization has 
a virtual monopoly on all burials in Israel, 
except for the military. The Institute is a civil 
organization working under the Ministry of 
Health. On the other hand, it is an arm of the 
security police and the military.

The Institute is then both a traditional 
medical-legal mortuary and, off the record, 
Israel’s primary source of tissues, bone, and 
skin needed for transplantation, plastic surgery, 
research and medical teaching. The illicit 
traffic in organs, tissues, bone and the 
stockpiling of assorted body parts at the 
Institute is what anthropologists call a public 
secret, something that every one inside the 
society knows about but which is never discussed, 
and certainly never admitted to those outside the 
society. But, in fact, allegations and official 
investigations of organ-and-tissue trafficking at 
the Forensic Institute have been ongoing in 
Israel since 1999 up to the present day. Yehuda 
Hiss has been, off and on, the focus of public 
scrutiny. He has been sued, and he has been 
decorated. He has been both upbraided and 
rewarded, fired from his position as director of 
the Institute, and given a new title, senior pathologist, with a higher salary.

Allegations of Hiss’ confiscation of organs, 
tissues and other body parts date back to 
November 1999, with an investigative report in 
the local Tel Aviv newspaper Ha’ir, which stated 
that medical students under Hiss’ direction were 
allowed to practice on bodies sent to the 
Institute at Abu Kabir for autopsy, and that body 
parts were transferred for transplant and other 
medical uses without permission from the families 
concerned. In 2000, the newspaper Yediot Aharonot 
published a price list for body parts that Hiss 
had sold to university researchers and to medical 
schools. A committee of international forensic 
experts was appointed by the Minister of Health 
to investigate practices at the Institute. It 
took two years for the investigation to be 
completed, during which time, according to Hiss’ 
former assistant and protégé, Chen Kugel, much of 
the evidence was destroyed. Nonetheless, 
according to Kugel, Hiss still had a huge 
collection of body parts in his possession at Abu 
Kabir, when the Israeli courts ordered a search 
in 2002. Israel National News reported at the 
time, “Over the past years, heads of the 
Institute appear to have given thousands of 
organs for research without permission, while 
maintaining a ‘storehouse’ of organs at Abu 
Kabir.” Hiss was reprimanded but allowed to 
continue his activities, which he defended as 
necessary for medicine, for the defense of the 
Israeli state, and for the advancement of science.

In 2005, new allegations of organs trafficking at 
Abu Kabir surfaced, and Hiss admitted to having 
removed parts from 125 bodies without 
authorization. Following a plea bargain with the 
state, the attorney general decided not to press 
criminal charges, and Hiss was given only a 
reprimand, and he continues on as chief 
pathologist at Abu Kabir, that is, the state of 
Israel’s official head pathologist. Illegal 
harvesting of bodies was simultaneously 
prohibited and tolerated. Hiss was, in fact, the 
state’s answer to the chronic scarcity of tissues 
and organs. He recognized the need produced by 
the deep cultural reluctance of families to 
tamper with the bodies of the dead, which allowed 
him to cross a line and to do as he pleased with the bodies entrusted to him.

Interviewing Dr Hiss

When I met  professor Yehuda Hiss for the first 
and, as it turned out, the only time, the 
pathologist struck me as a formidable, 
frightening, and brilliant man. A Polish 
immigrant to Israel, with striking blue eyes, 
short beard, wiry body, and a tense, 
hypervigilant and belligerent demeanor, he 
commands attention. The interview took place on 
July 21, 2000, in Hiss’ office at the Institute, 
in the presence of a staff member and Meira 
Weiss. We were all, I think, shocked by his 
revelations. Hiss allowed the interview to be 
audiotaped, but parts of our conversation were 
off the record, and the tape was turned off at 
those moments. What follows now is a 
transcription of the audiotape pared down, some asides deleted.

YH: My name is Yehuda Hiss. I am a forensic 
specialist. Here we do forensic medicine, as well 
as anatomical pathology. I do both. The main 
issue, here, as compared to other countries, is 
that [in Israel] we have only one [forensic] 
Institute for the entire country. And it is very 
conveniently located in the center of Israel, so 
that the bulk of the population is located very 
near to us
.There are another twenty medical 
centers in various places, each with its own 
department of pathology. But very few complete 
autopsies are performed in Israel.

I began my training in anatomical pathology in 
1974, in Sheba (Tel Hashomer). We had only three 
residents, and we would perform about 850 
complete autopsies [each year]. Today, there are 
6-8 residents, and the hospital that trains 
residents in anatomical pathology is three times 
as big, but residents today perform only 40-50 
mostly incomplete autopsies [per year]. So, this 
is representative of what is going on in the 
state of Israel. We did 800 per year 25 years ago 
with fewer residents, and only 40-50 per year 
today with many more resources. The only place 
where complete autopsies are conducted in Israel happens to be here.

Now, about the question of harvesting organs – 
it’s strange. Not only here, in Israel, but 
elsewhere it all depends on the personal approach 
of those in charge of pathology or organs 
harvesting. In my case, when I was a resident in 
Tel Hashomer – a hospital linked to the IDF 
(Israeli Defense Forces) – we would collaborate 
with the army and we would provide the army with 
grafted (harvested) skin for burn victims, and, 
from time to time, they would ask us for cornea. 
So, I would be involved in it because I was in 
charge, with two others, and we would provide this.

NS-H: Why cornea to the military?

YH: For injuries perhaps. Maybe it was easier 
[for the military] to make this request of us, 
and, once we had gotten permissions to perform – 
and the family agreed – to the autopsy, we would 
take some skin and take the cornea. For autopsy, 
we always had to ask permission of the family, 
unless it was a court order [a criminal case].

NS-H: There is some resistance here, in Israel, 
to autopsy – both Jewish and Arab – right?

YH: Yes. We did everything off the record, highly 
informal. We never asked for the families’ permission.

Then we started harvesting cornea for several 
Israeli hospitals, initially for Tel Hashomer, 
because I had friends there who knew me well. I 
suggested this to them at various meetings. I was 
amazed because no one had ever come to us to ask. 
Why are you not coming over to us? I told them 
how it worked at Case Western Reserve Hospital 
[in Cleveland]. So, then they started to come 
from hospitals in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv. 
Everything was done on a friendly basis between 
us and our colleagues in various departments. I 
felt strongly that these corneas should go to 
public patients and not to private clinics. We 
were not paid for harvesting, but we weregiven 
some donations, equipment that we needed.

Whatever was done here was off the record, highly 
informal. We never asked permission of the 
family. But we would harvest only from bodies 
that the family agreed to allow an autopsy. So, 
we would never harvest where there were objections to the autopsy.

NS-H: The law allows this?

YH: The law demands permissions for autopsy, but 
not for harvesting. I read this in the law 
books
.There was an addendum to the law in 1981, 
that you should ask the permission of the family 
– for autopsy
. We were free to take skin from 
the back of legs. We took cornea. We would not 
take cornea from those bodies where we suspected 
that the families might want to open the eyelids. 
There are some Orthodox and some Oriental [Arab] 
families who open the eyelids and throw sand on 
top of them. We knew whom to avoid. Also we only 
removed the cornea, not as we did in Teleshemer 
[hospital], the whole eyeball. And we would close 
and glue the eyelids, and we would cover any 
place where we had removed something. And, 
similarly, we would take [skin] only from the 
back of the legs. In the beginning of the 1990s, 
we began to take some long bones from the legs. 
Then we were asked for cardiac valves, and we did 
a few of them, because of the lack of 
collaboration between us and major thoracic 
departments. Then, beginning in 1995, we started 
to do it more formally. It was done according to 
a certain list of priorities, established by 
various medical centers and specific departments. 
It was done as a kind of semi-legal thing. At 
that point, we would inform the Ministry of 
Health. Before that time [1995], it was only 
between me/the Institute and the various 
departments and medical centers – informally. 
Later, we decided that it should be done through the Ministry of Health.

NS-H: Your chief is the Minister of Health, but 
you were free to do quite a lot without any interference from them?

YH: Yes, correct, but there are things that 
really should be done with some instruction and 
through the Ministry of Health. It was unclear for many years.

NS-H: In some countries of Latin America, the IMF 
[Forensic Institutes] is under the jurisdiction 
of the police, but in others, like Cuba, it is 
under the Ministry of Health. In the old South 
Africa, it was under the military police – and here?

YH: Independence is very important. This 
institution was established in 1954 under the 
auspices of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 
Then, in the early 1970s, it came under the 
police department. Then, in 1975 or ’76, it came 
under the Ministry of Health. We are now part of 
the Ministry of Health, and the director-general 
of the ministry is our boss, but we are actually 
completely independent. Until a few years ago, 
all medical centers were under the Ministry of 
Health, but in the late 1990s they have become 
independent. There are only a few still directly 
under the Ministry of Health. Since then, they 
are more interested in what we are doing here and 
in our capacities [to harvest tissues], and so we 
now get more demands and we feel that it should 
be regulated. We want to be on record, too, for 
the various costs that are involved in the 
harvesting of skin and cornea, bones, pulmonary 
values and so forth
 . But until then, this was 
just between us and the various hospitals that we 
serviced, but we wanted there to be some control over this.

NS-H: How were the prices set?

YH: In 1996, we made up a list of the various 
medical services that we provided, a list of 
hundreds or thousands of shekels – there were 
expenses that we wanted to recoup. We would 
collaborate only with public hospitals. On one 
occasion, about ten years ago, there was a case 
of a head of a department who used one or two 
corneas donated to the hospital from a pathology 
Institute – and he used them for his private 
patients. This is the only case known to me – 
where tissue donated for general use was used 
privately. Since 1998, because of popular 
pressure, there was a sharp decline in autopsies, 
and we were made to ask permission of all 
families for autopsy and for harvesting, or for 
dissection, or for training of military medical 
students. It was all because a man went to the 
newspapers just recently to scream that his son, 
who died in military service, was used for 
medical experimentation and medical training. And 
a furor resulted in the country and permissions 
for autopsies declined. Since then – about two 
years ago [1998] – we were told to ask permission 
for everything. [This is a reference to the late 
Sergeant Zeev Buzaglo of the Golani Brigade, who 
was killed in a training accident in April 1997. 
When his father, Dr. Haim Buzaglo, a 
pediatrician, came to see his son’s body, he saw 
that it had been harmed at the Institute – NS-H].

NS-H: Why [is] the military [involved in this]?

YH: There is a special relationship between the 
Institute and the army because of the current 
political situation in Israel. All Israelis feel 
that we all have an obligation to help out in 
some way, and because we all served in the army, 
we all have a personal stake in the army ever 
after. We are all linked to the army. And because 
of this, we took it for granted. We never asked. 
We thought it was part of the duty of all Israelis to cooperate.

YH [pointing out data from his files]: Look, here 
is the data. Since January–April we received here 
705 bodies. Of these, 500 were not suitable for 
harvesting. Either the bodies were too 
decomposed, or because of infections. Only 175 
were adequate for harvesting. We called all of 
them, and 98 refused. Twelve we could not locate 
the next of kin. Only 65 out of them agreed. So, 
I would say we have an acceptance rate of less than one-third.

When we cannot find the next of kin, we do not 
harvest by law. Originally, the law required only 
that we inform the family that harvesting is 
going to take place. Now, we not only inform, we 
have to ask them for permission. So, because of 
this one bad incident, the backlash is overriding 
the Parliament and the law of the land.

[Here NS-H explains how in some states in the 
U.S. there is “presumed” consent for cornea 
harvesting, as in California, but most people 
were totally unaware that it was going on. The 
law was more or less kept a secret.]

YH: Yes, this was our policy for many years, and 
then one case, one bad scandal, and it is all 
over for us. Now, young military medical 
personnel no longer can get the training they 
need and, when they are sent to Lebanon or to the 
Palestinian territories – and there are injuries, 
they have to intervene without proper training, 
so that they are actually experimenting on living 
soldiers. That is what all this has brought us. 
No previous experience, no training whatsoever 
with the human body. They have to practice 
[surgery] on dogs – but never on humans! This is 
an absurdity! I would not want anyone to perform 
a tracheotomy or colostomy on me without any 
previous experience or training. Would you? 
Today, they do virtual training on computerized 
bodies and so on, but it’s not the same thing.

NS-H: So, no biotech firms that want your material?

YH: In Israel, 100 per cent of the skin harvested 
goes to Hadassah Hospital’s skin bank – it is for 
military purposes only – no biotech firms have 
access. There is another skin bank in the south 
of the country, to which the Institute is not 
linked – but I know that if something happens – 
if one of the burn centers need skin for a 
private patient, say, they can take skin from the 
Hadassah skin bank, but they have to repay it. 
Logistically, we are only linked to Hadassah.

Since six months ago, we have a new man working 
with us downstairs, who is a kind of mortuary 
assistant, and he is harvesting skin, bones, 
cornea, and bones. Before him, there was only an 
arrangement with the army – they used to send us 
here every week a plastic surgeon, who would come 
here to harvest skin for the skin bank in 
Hadassah. This lasted for many years. More than 
12 or 13 years he did this. Since 1987-1988, 
every other week, a plastic surgeon would come 
here to harvest skin. But now we no longer have 
this direct relationship with the army since this 
latest scandal. Now, we have our own mortuary 
assistant, who is paid to harvest for us all the 
skin, bone, cornea, etc., that is needed. He 
helps out in other activities as well.

NS-H: When you ask permission, do some say you 
can take this and not that organ?

YH: Some say do not touch the heart or the brain 
– some are afraid you might want to take the 
skin. But it is not like you are skinning a 
rabbit or something, and we say, no, it is not 
like that – it is gentle, there is no blood – we 
are not peeling the skin off. It is not like 
scalping a person. We take only a superficial 
layer off – from the back and the legs. And we 
tell them, too, that we are only taking the thin 
tissue [from the eye] and not the globe.

In order to fulfill both Jewish and Muslim laws 
about the disposal of the dead, everything is 
done immediately. We start working here at about 
6 in the morning. By 7 a.m., we have the whole 
list of all the bodies that are going to be 
coming in that day. Only some of these are going 
to be autopsied. And then this person here draws 
up a list about what will be done to whom. And then we are on the phone.

NS-H: Are there special techniques for how to present this request to people?

Staff member: We have to know how to read people.

YH: – Yes, but this is not for me. From the very 
beginning, I said, “Please free me from this! I 
cannot possibly talk to people about these things.” I am not patient like this.

Staff member: He loves the dead. But not the living! [Laughter]

YH: Yes, I switched to forensics from clinical 
medicine because I wanted the patients to shut up 
already! So, we say that X will do it – but she 
is too busy – and, really, we need a social worker to do this 


NS-H: Any other body parts taken – like pituitary glands?

YH: When I was a medical resident, we would take 
pituitary glands. Today, we have chemical 
substitutes, but when I was a resident, I used to 
rush to the refrigerator to deposit pituitary 
glands in a bottle with water. I would collect 
them – sure, of course! Also, tiny bones from 
inside the ear – these are very good for some 
surgical procedures. We would do this about twice a year.

NS-H: Some of these small bones were used for 
training NASA astronauts for space travel, and 
its effects on balance? And what about transnational sales?

YH: You can buy cornea from Russia for $300 each, 
I think
. In Moscow, you can get a kidney for 
$20,000 and cornea for a few dollars, because 
they really don’t care
 At  every autopsy, they 
take what they want, and they have a tremendous 
stockpile of organs that they can draw on. They 
have skin and cornea. In some large medical 
centers in Russia, you can get fresh kidney that 
they get from auto accidents – and in Turkey as 
well. So, in both places you can get transplanted 
organs for just $20,000 – including the kidney – 
because they have a stockpile of them. I know 
because I was part of a transplant procurement 
organization, and we studied this. It is very 
cheap. It is well done by very good surgeons 
there. In fact, there is a surplus of kidneys in 
Russia. They have surplus because fewer people there can afford transplants.

NS-H: There is some doubt about whether Russia 
was using the international standards for determining brain death.

YH: Yes, sometimes our surgeons would accompany 
our Israeli patients to Russia, and they would 
perform the surgery there and the kidney was from 
a Russian. The surgery would be performed by 
Israeli doctors in Russia, with Russian kidneys. 
Some are leading transplant surgeons from Israel...

NS-H: Yes, transplant tourism, some of this has 
been reported in the newspapers.

YH: Right. They would go once a month for a few 
days and would perform five or six surgeries 
there, and the patient would come back here to recuperate.

NS-H: The UCSF medical ethics board decided that 
if people who want to break the law and travel to 
China or the Philippines to be transplanted, then 
we will not provide you with follow-up care – you 
can go to a private institution.

YH: Many things in Israel are done on a personal 
basis and through connections
 I think that in 
Israel everything should be as equitable as 
possible. One should not have to depend on 
connections or money. If advertising and the 
media would only persuade the Israeli population 
to donate organs from deceased victims from 
trauma
 [ and even though there is nothing in 
Talmudic law against organ harvesting from the 
dead], a religious family will find a rabbi who 
will agree with them. I try to tell them how 
important it is to donate, and they will say, “I 
need to discuss this with my rabbi” – and nine 
times out of ten they come back with a negative 
answer. That is, the answer that they want
.

Dr Chen Kugel, Whistleblower

As can be seen from the transcript, Hiss readily 
admitted to the non-consensual, informal tissue, 
skin, bone and organ harvesting to serve the 
needs of the country. Until he arrived in 1987 as 
chief pathologist at the Forensic Institute, 
there was no organ or tissue harvesting. He 
explained to his staff that this practice was 
common elsewhere in the world, in the U.S., at 
Case Western Reserve, where he had studied, and 
in other forensic Institutes he had visited. It 
was a “presumed consent” without the backing of 
the population, or the law. Although it was in 
violation of tissue and organs laws, Hiss thought 
it could be justified for a war-torn and 
traumatized country like Israel. Hiss admitted 
that the organs-and-tissue harvesting was 
“informal” and its legality unclear. From his 
perspective as a state pathologist, little harm 
was done by the careful removal of some organs 
that would never be missed by the deceased and 
about which the family would never have to know. 
Medical students in military training were 
brought into the morgue after Hiss and his team 
completed their legally mandated autopsies, to be 
trained in the removal of organs.

After my tape was released in Israel, on December 
19, 2009, to Israeli TV’s Channel 2, government 
officials for the army and the Ministry of Health 
admitted that organs and tissues were harvested 
from the dead bodies of both Palestinians and 
Israelis throughout the 1990s, but that the 
practice ended in 2000. Dr. Hiss, however, 
publicly denied everything on tape – including 
his words to me. Today, he says that he denies it 
all – the stockpiling of body parts, the perjury, 
and the organ harvesting. He denies everything. 
He says that everything was all done in agreement 
with and by law, and that families consented to 
harvest for transplantation. No organs were taken 
for studies, he said, none at all.

In May 2010, Dr. Chen Kugel and Meira Weiss spoke 
at a special conference I organized at the 
University of California, before a working group 
of experts, including anthropologists, transplant 
surgeons, pathologists, detectives, prosecutors, and human rights activists.

Chen Kugel, the unheralded and original (unnamed 
outside of Israel) whistle-blower on the Forensic 
Institute, said that the situation was much worse 
than what Yehuda Hiss admitted in his interview 
with me in 2000. Kugel’s comments stand as a 
first-person account from a military officer and 
a forensic pathologist. When he returned to 
Israel to work at the Forensic Institute in 2000, 
after several years in the United States, where 
he was working in various hospitals and forensic 
programs, he says he immediately realized that 
something was terribly wrong. He tried to address 
the problems with three medical residents, and 
with them together to have a meeting with the 
director. Kugel was the spokesperson, and he told 
Hiss that it was wrong to harvest organs and 
tissues without permission, and that “giving 
false evidence in court is also not okay.” This 
went nowhere, and so the group wrote a letter of 
complaint to the Ministry of Health, outlining 
the illegalities. The Ministry of Health reacted 
with alacrity: they fired the three residents and 
punished Kugel, who, as a military officer 
working for the IDF, could not be fired. Then 
they went to the media and spilled the entire 
story about what exactly was going on.

Kugel: “Organs were sold to anyone”

In fact, according to Kugel, “Organs were sold to 
anyone; anyone that wanted organs just had to pay 
for them.” While skin, heart valves, bones, and 
corneas were removed and used for transplants, 
solid organs – hearts, brains, livers – “were 
sold for research, for presentations, for drills 
for medical students and surgeons.”

There was a price for these organs, low – $ 300 
for a femur, for example – and should a client 
want all the organs from a body, that could be 
arranged, not the body itself, but all the organs 
removed and sold, Kugel said, for about $2,500.

Amid the uproar prompted by the whistle-blowers, 
Hiss waged his own media campaign and tried to 
convince the public that everything that was done 
was to serve a noble end, to help the war-wounded 
victims of terrorist attacks, and the sick. He 
presented his conduct, in Dr. Kugel’s descripton, 
“as something sublime or even heroic, as a 
modern-day Robin Hood. Taking from the dead and 
giving to the innocent victims.”

So, whom were the organs taken from? Kugel asked 
rhetorically. The answer was they were taken from 
everyone, from Jews and Muslims, from soldiers 
and from stone throwers, from terrorists and from 
the victims of terrorist suicide bombers, from 
tourists and from immigrants. There were only two 
considerations – the physical condition of the 
body and its organs, and the ability to conceal what they were doing.

Most of the victims of illegal organ harvesting, 
according to Kugel, were not even subject to 
autopsy, they were simply harvested. They hid the 
damage by putting pipes and glass eyes, and broom 
sticks, and toilet paper and plastic skull caps 
to cover the place where the brain was removed, 
and so on. The Institute, Kugel said, was 
counting on one thing: that most Israelis do not 
view the body after death except once, to verify 
that the body is the right one. The body is 
wrapped in a winding sheet, or might be wrapped 
in plastic sheets for the burial company to come 
for it. In that case, the staff would warn the 
burial employees, who were not well educated, not 
to open the sheet because the body was 
contaminated with an infectious disease. It was 
more difficult to take organs from soldiers 
because their bodies were supervised by the 
military, which was more difficult to fool. “But 
organs were taken from soldiers,” Kugel said. It 
was easier to take tissues and organs from the 
new immigrants, and, needless to say, easiest of 
all to take from the Palestinians. They would be 
going back across the border, and, “if there were 
any complaints coming from their families, they 
were the enemy and so, of course, they were lying 
and no one would believe them”.

What Kugel found most amazing was the uproar 
around the Boström article, when there was 
abundant detail in the Israeli press about the 
Institute whose affairs were discussed heatedly 
by commissions, finding blatant evidence of 
illegalities despite the attempts to destroy all 
the evidence. After these things were exposed, it 
took two years for the judge, or the head of the 
special inquest, to decide whether or not Hiss 
should be sued. Then, it took the police two 
years to begin a serious investigation. The end 
result was that Hiss was removed as director of 
the Institute but, as previously noted, retained 
as senior pathologist and given a salary 
increase. Kugel was dismissed from his post 
because, during the investigation, he spoke with 
one of the witnesses who had buried evidence – 
human body parts – and thus was seen as 
interfering with the trial. He was censored and 
blacklisted from teaching at all but one of 
Israel’s universities.  To Dr. Kugel the prime 
issue had nothing at all to do with science: it 
was about disrespect, about hoarding body 
specimens, about turning the Institute into a 
factory of bodies. The Institute’s conduct was 
motivated by money, by power, and by 
authoritarian paternalism of the sort that says, 
“We know what’s good for you, we’ll decide what 
happens to you, the person who doesn’t know 
anything. We’ll decide.” And that’s the reason 
why that happened, and Dr. Kugel asserts it is happening to this day.

Questions About Rachel Corrie’s Autopsy

On March 14, 2010, the Haifa District Court heard 
testimony in the civil law suit filed by the 
family of the slain U.S. citizen and Gaza peace 
activist, Rachel Corrie, against the State of 
Israel for her unlawful killing in Rafah, Gaza. 
Corrie, an American college student and human 
rights activist, was crushed to death on March 
16, 2003, by a Caterpillar D9R bulldozer. During 
the hearing, Dr. Hiss, who conducted the autopsy 
of Rachel Corrie at the request of the Israeli 
military, admitted that he had violated an 
Israeli court order that required an official 
from the U.S. Embassy to be present as a witness. 
Hiss stated that it was his policy not to allow 
anyone who is not a physician or a biologist to 
observe autopsy. Hiss admitted that he had 
retained samples of tissues and organs from 
Corrie’s body for examination and testing without 
informing the Corrie family. Hiss was uncertain 
about whether the samples had been buried with 
other body samples from the Institute. Corrie’s 
parents, Cindy and Craig, were shocked by these 
chilling admissions and really do not know quite 
what to make of them or what, if anything, they 
should do about it. They are seeking, they told 
me, only the truth and symbolic damages of $1.00. 
The prevention of harm to others is, they say, far more important than money.

Finally, what links the story of Yehuda Hiss at 
the National Forensic Institute and Isaac 
Rosenbaum and the international network of organs 
traffickers in Israel? Perhaps only the same sad 
fact that hysteria about organs scarcities – 
whatever that chilling phrase evokes – have 
driven both the medical abuses of the dead and 
the medical abuses of those who were trafficked 
to service transplant tourists from Israel to New 
York City, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, among 
other sites. When Dr. Zaki Shapira began putting 
out feelers for kidney sellers in the early 1990s 
to serve the needs of his transplant patients at 
Bellinson Hospital in Tel Aviv, he found them 
close at hand, Palestinian guest workers. 
Palestinians were, he told me in Bellagio in 1996 
at a conference on organ trafficking, 
“pre-disposed” to sacrifice their organs. Or, 
perhaps, to be sacrificed. It works both ways. CP

Nancy Scheper-Hughes is the author of several 
books on poverty and health, including 
<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0520075374/counterpunchmaga>Death 
without Weeping: the Violence of Everyday Life in 
Brazil – listed by CounterPunch in its top 100 
non-fiction books published in English in the 
20th Century. She can be reached at:
<mailto:nsh at berkeley.edu>nsh at berkeley.edu

Footnotes

[1].  N. Mozgovaya, US Professor is whistle 
blower in Rosenbaum arrest. Haaretz 26 July, 
2009. 
<http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1102799.html>http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1102799.html.

[2]. M. Daly  Anthropologist's ‘Dick Tracy 
moment’ plays role in arrest of suspected kidney 
trafficker. New York Daily News 24 July 2009.

[3] Nancy Scheper-Hughes,2008,“Illegal Organ 
Trade: Global Justice and the Traffic in Human 
Organs” in Living Donor Organ Transplants, edited 
by Rainer Grussner,M.D. and Enrico Bendetti, MD. 
New York: McGraw-Hill; N. 
Scheper-Hughes,2006,“Kidney bKin: Inside the 
Transatlantic Kidney Trade”, Harvard 
International Review (winter) 62-65; “N. 
Scheper-Hughes, (2004) “Parts Unknown: Undercover 
Ethnography  in the Organ Trafficking 
Underworld”, Ethnography 5(1): 29-73; N. 
Scheper-Hughes,2000, The Global Traffic in 
Organs, Current Anthropology 4192): 191-224

[4] “Israeli doctor said detained in Turkey for 
illegal organ transplants. Three other Israelis 
said detained, including 2 alleged kidney donors 
and a recipient;15 people held.” Haaretz News Service, January 1, 2007.

[5] In several detailed email exchanges 
(2006-2008) from a  criminal lawyer (name 
withheld on request)  I learned that the 
government of Israel decided to pursue the 
international crimes of transplant surgeons and 
brokers operating out of Israel by means tax fraud investigations.

[6] 
<http://www.health.gov.il/>http://www.health.gov.il/trans” 
plant/about_adi.html “Knesset approves new organ 
donation law”, 
<http://www.counterpunch.org/http//www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3523461,00.html>http//www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3523461,00.html

[7] United States District Court of New Jersey: 
criminal complaint: United States of America  v. 
Levy Izhak Rosenbaum, : Mag. No. 09-3620 a/k/a “Issac Rosenbaum”, July 2009

[8]  English translation of  Donald Bostrom’s 
article  can be found at: 
<http://www.aftonbladet.se/kultur/article5691805.ab>http://www.aftonbladet.se/kultur/article5691805.ab

[9]  Donald Boström, 2001.  Inshallah : 
konflikten mellan Israel och Palestina. Stockholm: Ordfront.

[10] Zeev Galilee, 2003.  First Source (Makor 
Rishon) –“Pangs of Conscience”  (Musar Klayot) 
New Blood Libel on French Television: Israel 
Steals Kidneys of Orphan Children in Moldavia, 24 October 2003.

[11] Meira Weiss, personal communication and 
paper read at Organs Watch conference combating 
traffic in organs and tissues, UCBerkeley,  May 7, 2010.

For an audio link for the Hiss interview go to 
<http://www.counterpunch.org/nhnotes.html>nhnotes.html.




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