Thursday, January 31, 2013

How true is it that Israel deceitfully gave Ethiopian Jews birth control injections?

Ethiopian Jewish leaders recite prayers during the Sigd festival in Jerusalem. (Photo: AFP)
When it was reported earlier this week that Israeli officials had been giving birth control to arriving Ethiopian Jews "without their consent", the international media had a field day. Twitter lapped it up, too. Here was hard evidence, observers said, of Israeli racism. Some even used the word "sterilisation" and haughtily reminded Israelis that the Holocaust, that thing they go on about all the time, also started with the sterilisation of "undesirables". Echoing Lib Dem MP David Ward's recent chastisement of "the Jews" for failing to learn anything from their experiences during the Holocaust, bloggers and observers accused Israel's sterilisers of repeating the very history that Israel's founders sought to escape from.

But how true is it that Israel "forced" or "coerced" Ethiopian Jews into taking birth control, without even telling them it was birth control? An interesting piece in Haaretz says it isn't very true, and "the more [this] story is repeated, the more warped and distorted it becomes". Haaretz says it is certainly the case, as revealed in an Israeli TV documentary in December, that Israel's immigration authorities are guilty of "insensitivity" and "cultural condescension" towards Ethiopian Jews, and perhaps a "certain level of racism". The article says these African Jews were indeed given Depo-Provera, a birth-control injection that lasts for three months, both in Addis Ababa, as they waited to go to Israel, and also in the absorption centres they first stayed in upon arrival in Israel. But it is not the case – or it certainly has not been proven by anyone – that they were given these injections deceitfully, without their consent, being misled into believing they were just inoculations.

Haaretz says the Ethiopian women were "coaxed" or "strongly convinced" to have the Depo-Provera shot, not forced. The idea that they were given it without their knowledge springs from the testimony of a few women who simply said "they weren't aware the shots were birth control"; that could be down to these individual women's lack of understanding or confusion, says Haaretz, since "the vast majority of the Ethiopian women who received Depo-Provera were aware it was birth control and received it willingly".

As for the claims that Israel is "sterilising" immigrants it doesn't like very much, Haaretz points out that, by definition, an injection whose birth-controlling power lasts only three months is not sterilisation. It also points out that some Ethiopian women continued voluntarily to receive Depo-Provera even once they were settled in Israel, because they "preferred being injected at a clinic rather than having to take pills daily in the presence of other family members who might disapprove of that decision". That is, the injections became culturally convenient for some Ethiopian women in Israel. Haaretz says it is "insulting to these women's intelligence" to suggest they would continue travelling to a clinic in Israel in order to stand in line to be "sterilised", and in truth the drop in the Ethiopian birth rate in Israel that observers fretted over this week is far more likely "attributable to access to birth control that these women wanted".

None of this nuance and very little of the detail of the original Israeli TV exposé made it into the international coverage this week, where instead the story was treated as "some kind of villainous genocidal plot of sterilisation aimed at ethnic and racial cleansing", says Haaretz. Yes, Israeli officials screwed up in their treatment of these Ethiopian women; no woman should ever feel pressured, even slightly, into taking birth control, especially by those who hold the key to her ability to start a new life. (This is something that all those respectable, Western, condom-waving NGOs in Africa should also bear in mind.) But the mistreatment of this story, the exaggeration of it, the warped repeating of it by observers and tweeters around the world, reveals something ugly too: a thirst for treating Israel as a uniquely racist, wicked, barbaric outpost. When it comes to pointing a big, white Western finger at Israel and accusing it of carrying out the kind crimes of racism and colonialism that the rest of us grew out of years ago – a favoured pastime of so many liberal campaigners today – it seems facts count for little.