Echoing the history of sterilization of African American, Native American and Puerto Rican women, which included testing toxic birth control dosages on women in PR, the latest reproductive rights outrage is taking place in Israel, where it has been disclosed that Ethiopian Jewish women (members of the Beta Israel) have been given Depo-Provera without informed consent.
JERUSALEM — Rocked by a scandal involving birth-control treatments for Ethiopian Jews, Israel’s health ministry issued new guidelines on the use of the injections known commercially as Depo-Provera. In a recent letter to the country’s four HMOs reported Sunday, Ron Gamzu, director general of the health ministry, instructed gynecologists against renewing prescriptions in cases where the patient does not fully understand the treatment’s implications.
The ministry’s new policy comes in response to a controversy exposed last month by local investigative journalist Gal Gabbay, who reported that Jewish Ethiopian women awaiting emigration to Israel in transit camps in Ethiopia were coaxed into the treatment with little medical explanation and led to understand this was a condition for moving to Israel. Around 120,000 Jews from Ethiopian origin live in Israel; roughly a third of them are Israeli born. In 2010, the government decided to bring to Israel the 2,000 Jews remaining in the African country and close the transit camps currently run by the Jewish Agency For Israel by the end of this year. Immigrant women told the reporter this was the standard practice in the transit camps run by Jewish and Israeli agencies in Ethiopia in the last decade. Many women continued the course of treatment in Israel, where a sharp decline in birth rate has been noted among the Ethiopian community over the past decade.
Depo-Provera, the brand name of a long-acting contraceptive injection, is a highly effective method of birth control but possible side effects include a decrease in bone density that puts women at increased risk for osteoporosis and fractures later on. That and other side effects are not immediately reversible, and returning to fertility can be a lengthy process. In addition, withdrawal symptoms can be acute. Relatively few healthy women in Israel choose the injection without specific medical reasons.
Birth rates and demographics in Israel are often political, and Israel has historically focused on promoting Jewish birthrates to retain a Jewish majority, according to a recent New York Times report on fertility and in-vetro fertilization in the country.
But Ethiopian Jews remain a marginalized group, often living in highly segregated communities. Because of this, many women’s and immigrant rights advocates believe that the 50 percent decline over the past 10 years in the birthrate of Israel’s Ethiopian community is the result of the Israeli government’s attempt to limit and restrict Ethiopian women’s fertility through forcible birth control injections.
Hedva Eyal, head of the Women and Technologies Project for Israeli feminist organization Isha L’Isha, had submitted a report six years ago to the Israeli government showing a disproportionate number of birth control shots – 60 percent – were being given to Ethiopian immigrants. She says she was met with silence, until now.
I became interested in minority populations in Israel in the 70’s, after contact with the Black Panthers of Israel, who formed in response to discrimination against Mizrahi Jews. Years later, in graduate school due to a friendship with an Ethiopian Jewish woman, I actually considered doing field research among the Beta Israel, but realized I’d have to spend too much time learning Amharic, Tigrinya, and Hebrew. I have however, followed the progress of assimilation (or lack of) into Israeli society of the people formerly dubbed “Falasha” since Operation Moses (1981-1984) and Operation Solomon(1991).
As Emily L. Hauser points out, this current issue only serves to highlight deeper issues in Israel around immigration and assimilation.
Primarily, the Depo Provera story reflects the broader Ethiopian Jewish experience of coming home only to find themselves to still be strangers: Many Ethiopian Jews were made to undergo HIV testing before immigrating, and though no other group of Israelis has ever been so tested-meaning that health officials had no way of knowing how the Ethiopian findings compared to HIV rates among other groups-Ethiopian blood donations were routinely discarded from 1984 to 1996.
Moreover, the state has often questioned the very Judaism of Jews who had literally trekked across wastelands, many dying on the way, in order to be among their own. Some were forced to undergo conversions; couples that had been married for decades were forced to remarry; and it was recently announced that the Israeli rabbinate plans to phase out the community’s traditional clergy, the kessim.
But there’s still more at play here, something that goes beyond the simple and striking racism so evident in every one of the above stories: Israel has always had a problem with Jews who differ in some way from the Ashkenazi culture of the founding generation.
When Sephardi Jews began to pour into the newly established country from all across the Middle East and North Africa, they were called primitivim, and they and their children were treated as such for decades. Many Yemenite families still believe their children were kidnapped and adopted; official inquiries have found that while that didn’t happen (with 56 possible exceptions), possibly hundreds of children died and were buried without their parents being informed. Newly arrived Sephardi children were routinely treated poorly by the Ashkenazi schools to which they were sent, marriages were forbidden by angry Ashkenazi parents, and home-seeking Sephardi families were shunted to disadvantaged development towns. The establishment and meteoric rise of Shas in Israeli politics came largely in response to this reality.
Last year there were protests in Kiryat Malachi around racist housing policies.
“This is a battle against social injustice and it is not just for the Ethiopian community, it is for everyone in Israel,” commented an organizer, Kiryat Malachi resident Avi Yalou. “There is institutionalized racism everywhere a
gainst the Ethiopians, we see it on every level and in all areas of society. Sadly, it is nothing new and today we are hoping that the rest of Israeli society will take up this battle too.”
Tuesday’s protest was sparked by a news broadcast last week on national television showing how a young Ethiopian family had attempted to purchase an apartment in a certain block in the town but accidentally discovered that the tenants had collectively signed an agreement not to rent or sell their properties to members of the Ethiopian community.
“We have already moved on from that story, it happens everywhere in Israel, in every town and city,” lamented Yalou. “There is a whole phenomenon [of institutionalized racism] and although it might have started here, there is nothing to stop it happening in Ashkelon, Beit Shemesh, Haifa or elsewhere.”
Yaakov Tala, who has lived in Kiryat Malachi four years, said that such discrimination against Ethiopians has existed locally for a while, but most members of the community refuse to talk or complain about it.
Though much of the focus in progressive communities here has been on the I/P divide, it is important for us to recognize that Israeli Jews are not a monoculture, and are faced with their own civil rights issues.
cross-posted from Black Kos