Citing Human Rights Violations, Israeli Rabbis Protest Health Deal With China

Signatories of letter to health minister range from far right to left of national Orthodox camp.

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Falun Gong demonstrators dramatize an illegal act of paying for human organs during a protest 19 April 2006 in Washington, DC in conjunction with the visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to the US.
Falun Gong demonstrators dramatize an illegal act of paying for human organs during a protest 19 April 2006 in Washington, DC in conjunction with the visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to the US. Credit: AFP, Jim Watson

The recently signed cooperation agreement between the Health Ministry and China has sparked an outpouring of objections from rabbis who are admonishing Health Minister Yaakov Litzman that “China is also a superpower of evil and oppression of human rights.”

The rabbis are calling on Litzman to back out of the agreement due to a long list of Chinese violations of human rights, in particular the forced harvesting of human organs for transplant.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman. Credit: Tali Meyer

Sixteen rabbis, including prominent figures such as , Yuval Sherlo, and Elyakim Levanon, signed a letter that was sent to the health minister on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The letter refers to the cooperation agreement that Litzman signed with Chinese Health Minister Liu Qian about six weeks ago. The agreement calls for the two governments to cooperate in medical research, emergency readiness, telemedicine, digital health services, public health and health system reforms.

This is an agreement of great importance to the Health Ministry, and to the entire government. It is part of a national government plan led by the Health Ministry together with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Economics Ministry and the Israeli embassy in China.

“The aim is to strengthen the health system in Israel, to preserve its relative advantages in the world and to promote and develop ties with China and Israeli exports,” said a statement from the Health Ministry. The agreement’s significance was also made clear by the presence of Netanyahu and Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Liu Yandong at the signing.

This agreement is just one example of the Israeli health system’s increasingly close ties with China. At around the same time the agreement was signed, China’s deputy prime minister and her entourage toured the Israeli health system and were hosted at a festive reception and joint seminar for members of the health systems from both countries. The visit included tours of Sheba and Ichilov hospitals, Magen David Adom and the Maccabi HMO health facilities.

But what worries the rabbis, in their words, are the moral implications of forging pacts and close relations with a government that is a blatant violator of human rights, particularly in the field of health care: “In camps in China they harvest organs for sale in the organ transplant industry, under just partial anesthesia, and then they toss away for destruction the bodies of people who have yet to die,” the rabbis write.

Protesters demonstrate outside the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong October 8, 2010 demanding the release of jailed Chinese pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo.
Protesters demonstrate outside the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong October 8, 2010 demanding the release of jailed Chinese pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo.Credit: AP, Bobby Yip

“Organ harvesting for the sake of trafficking in organs for transplant is done in China by the authorities themselves. As Jews who well remember the persecution our people has endured, and the cruelty of our enemies throughout the generations, it is our duty to warn against the forging of agreements with evil regimes, agreements that could strengthen them and support their actions.”

Sherlo, a member of the National Organ Transplant Council, and head of the ethics department in the , wrote on his Twitter account this morning that “the fight for the safety of China’s persecuted should be part of our religious world, especially after the Holocaust.” He told Haaretz that some of the most respected ultra-Orthodox religious arbiters, such as the late Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, prohibited organ transplants using organs from China, and transplants for financial incentives.

“Despite the central ethos that saving a life outweighs everything else, a person cannot save himself on the basis of other people’s deaths, no matter if they are non-Jews,” said Sherlo.

The idea for the letter started with a secular Israeli human rights activist in China, Tal Babich, who thought that the ultra-Orthodox health minister would take the rabbis’ views into account, even if they come from the religious-Zionist stream. Babich has been volunteering for years in different international organizations that deal with China, and is himself a practitioner of Falun Gong, a system of meditation that is banned in China, an issue that is also cited in the rabbis’ letter.

Tal Babich, Israeli human rights activist in China
Tal Babich, Israeli human rights activist in China Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Some of the rabbis had been in contact with Babich already for years, and he recruited most of them by emailing a draft of the letter to 150 religious Zionist rabbis, urging that they sign on, and he received 16 positive responses, including from some very prominent figures. He based the wording of the letter on another letter, one that was sent to Litzman by Rabbi Ronen Lubitch in protest over the expanding ties with China. Rabbi Lubitch, who heads a congregation in Ra’anana and is the former head of the liberal Orthodox Beit Hillel organization, also signed the present letter.

Babich says: “Litzman is a religious person, and when I heard about the agreement with China I thought it could help to appeal to the rabbis to try to influence him. I don’t have any way to reach the ultra-Orthodox rabbis, although I know that they also oppose organ trafficking. What I did was to contact the national-religious rabbis, mainly via email. And fortunately, some of them responded.”

The letter reads: “We the undersigned call upon you, the health minister, who is committed to the values of the Torah and who believes that ‘Human beings are beloved because they were created in God’s image’ (Pirkei Avot, 3:14), not to seek increased cooperation with the Chinese regime in the health fields, in which the regime is perpetrating terrible injustices. In particular, we insist that everything must be done to prevent any connection between Israel or Israelis and the Chinese transplant surgery industry until the crimes in China completely cease.”

Some of the rabbis who signed it are leaders of the religious right and the settlements, like Levanon, and are not normally considered liberal on matters of religion and politics.

But this is not the first time a rabbinic voice has been heard on matters of foreign affairs and morality. At the start of this year, for example, a number of rabbis, including Aviner and Sherlo, came out against the sales of arms to dictatorial countries like South Sudan. Aviner, head of the Ateret Yerushalayim yeshiva in Jerusalem, said, “We must cut diplomatic ties with regimes that commit genocide and certainly not give them military aid. Have we already forgotten what happened to us in the Holocaust?”

The Health Ministry stated: “The issues were defined in advance, and cooperation is being handled in compliance with the rules of ethics. The Health Ministry will direct professionals to exercise the utmost meticulousness regarding the required rules of ethics.”

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