SAN FRANCISCO — Nancy Scheper-Hughes insists she is “no Dick Tracy,” but she played an important whistle-blowing role in the caper involving corrupt rabbis, money laundering and the trafficking of human organs in Israel.
Scheper-Hughes, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is a leading expert in the study of human organ trafficking and has spoken to countless international government and health officials decrying the practice.
Her research has led her around the world, from the slums of Brazil and peasant villages in Romania to the streets of Tel Aviv. Scheper-Hughes also started the Organ Watch Project as a kind of watchdog organization tracking the brokers, surgeons and thugs who profit from the illegal trade.
One of her more startling realizations: Officials in many countries knew all about organ trafficking, yet didn’t care.
“It was a public secret,” she said from her Berkeley home. “It was normalized in Israel.”
Scheper-Hughes first told the FBI in 2001 that a Brooklyn man, Levy Itzak Rosenbaum, was brokering sales in human kidneys, hoping it might make a dent in the criminal activity. It didn’t — at least not immediately.
Law enforcement agencies would probe the connections for years, resulting in last week’s wide-ranging string of arrests that included New Jersey political figures and several rabbis from Syrian Jewish communities in New Jersey and Brooklyn.
Though the rabbis were not directly linked to human organ trafficking, Rosenbaum allegedly made a living at it. They never met, but Scheper-Hughes over the years came to know a lot about the Orthodox Brooklynite.
“Rosenbaum was different,” she said. “He was deeply observant but he was a real player. He liked the good life, liked off-color jokes, implying he’s a little on the edge.”
Scheper-Hughes said she got to know many traffickers through her research, and though she has always crusaded against organ trafficking, she said she feels a measure of sympathy for Rosenbaum.
“I know he started out legitimate and wanted to benefit the community,” she said, “but he got corrupted along the way. I’m embarrassed for his family.”
A native of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section, which now has a large Jewish population, Scheper-Hughes grew up Catholic, though she says her grandmother spoke Yiddish.
In addition to her work fighting human organ traffic, she also devoted energy to the problem of pedophilia among Catholic clergy.
“I’m an equal opportunity angry anthropologist,” she says.
Even with the complaint filed against Rosenbaum, Scheper-Hughes knows the human organ trade continues to thrive around the world. As long as desperately poor people are willing to trade a kidney for a few hundred dollars, predators will swoop in. And not just back-room hoods.
Scheper-Hughes says in South Africa, top surgeons and first-rate hospitals are involved, with the Ministry of Health approving — and profiting from — the transplants.
“It was like an economic stimulus program,” she said.