Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Racism and reproductive rights in Israel


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.

Amid controversy, Israel issues new birth-control guidelines

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.  

Salon reports:

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).

Israel’s Ethiopian Birth Control Story Reflects A Broader Problem

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.

Ethiopians protest racism in Kiryat Malachi

“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



  1. DeniseVelez

    by Batya over at the orange:

    When I was in high school, lo these many years ago

    we learned and performed a song called Od Me’at (“A Little Further”), about an Ethiopian Jewish family that went through this:

       … Jews who had literally trekked across wastelands, many dying on the way, in order to be among their own.

    I remember very few of the lyrics now, but the last verse has stuck with me, in which the young narrator recalls her mother who died along the way:

    lu haita l’tzidi (if she were beside me)

    hi haita yechola (she would be able)

    l’shachneia otam (to convince them)

    she’ani yehudi (that I am a Jew.)

  2. sricki

    which is so multifaceted and cruel that it’s difficult to fully convey its impact. You have done a spectacular job here though.

    This type of discrimination and hate — and the way in which it manifests itself in practice — is viscerally disturbing… on a very physical gut level as well as a moral/ethical one.

    As for the Depo-Provera… I wanted to mention it specifically because I had a friend several years ago who tried it. The side-effects were absolutely horrible. She stayed sick, experienced decreased organ function, and some of her hair actually began falling out. Things like that can be scary, and thoroughly informed consent is absolutely crucial.

    And as always, I learned from you today. 😉

  3. mahakali overdrive

    but am glad to read this here. I’ve never seen mention of this before, although I have read some things about Israeli Jewish civil rights struggles.

    It is utterly reprehensible that these women were given this drug. Beyond condemning it, I have no idea what to say: can one imagine if the US required Mexican immigrants to first be given birth control shots prior to citizenship? This is alarming.

  4. Kysen

    just the ‘above the fold’…but, out loud…my comment thus far on it: “HOLY SHIIIIIT!”.

    Gonna read the rest now, but, tbh, I don’t know that my reaction is going to much change.

    Thank you for the cross-post Dee, when I am done reading I will pop over to the Porch and give a holler.

  5. and prejudice against them is widespread, or, at least, was back when I lived in Israel.

    Treatment of Sephardim by Ashkenazim was quite bad, too, although not to this extent (perhaps in part because the Sephardi population is large, while the Ethiopian population is small).

    When I moved back to New York, I sold my apartment. The old Polish couple across the hall from me said “Not to Sephardim! Not to Sephardim!” I told them I would find a Palestinian family to sell to.

    Bigotry is disgusting. Bigotry by people who had fled (as my neighbors had) the Shoah …. well, I dunno.

    Am Yisrael Echad. But some are more echad than others.

    (Am Yisrael Echad = the people of Israel are one).  

  6. Zionism.

    I know one man, now about 70, who is 7th generation born in Jerusalem.

    He has his own racism story, but it’s about the US, not Israel. His last name is ElMaleh. He wanted to buy an apartment in NY. They asked for some preposterous number of references; he’s a smart guy. He figured it out. His first few references were all prominent Jews. They said “oh, never mind about the others”.  

  7. This is horrifying.

    For some reason, I can’t get last the original haaretz paywall where the Israeli govt admits to the practice. But I think your link to the kos comment is particularly relevant and mirrors my own observations.

    I was in Jerusalem about a decade ago and an archeologist who was showing me around was explaining that when many Ethiopians emigrated to Israel they kept true to the the literal biblical text and traditions for millennia. ie. on Shabbat, they sat in the dark and ate their meal. At the time, I thought wow, this is true religious practice and if one was going to be religious, this would be the way to do it. Unfortunately the archeologist explained that no, ‘people’ (no idea who ‘they’ were) needed to ‘educate’ the Ethiopians on halakhah.

    Not that I have a particular affinity for religion, but I found this arrogance and disrespect towards Ethiopians on such a primitive level to be particularly galling and indicative of an ugliness that requires a lot of self-searching for Israelis. In any case, this story here, reeks of the same kind of vile behaviour.

    I will be following this story closely, thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Comments are closed.