Is Israel sterilising Ethiopians? Err, no
The wild claims being made about Israel's birth-control policies show that facts never get in the way of Israel-bashing.
In December last year, an Israeli TV documentary suggested that the administration of birth-control injections to Ethiopian Jews in Israel could be a reason why there has been a sharp decline in birthrates among that community.
When Israeli broadsheet Haaretz reported, at the end of January, that an Israeli government official had acknowledged ‘the practice’ of injecting Ethiopian Jews with long-acting contraceptive Depo-Provera, the news reached the international press and, of course, the Twittersphere. But the story quickly became distorted, turning, as one Israeli writer put it, ‘from a scoop to a smear’.
Israel has been likened to Apartheid-era South Africa and has even been accused of practising eugenics. International mainstream and fringe media have claimed that Israel has forced birth control on Ethiopians. Others went as far as to claim that Israel was sterilising Ethiopians, a particularly sinister accusation.
Perhaps it was Haaretz’s unfortunate use of the word ‘practice’ which misled some commentators. The official cited in that paper’s report did not say that Israel has a systematic fertility-control programme among Ethiopian Jews, or that it is mandatory for Ethiopian women to use birth control. The official only acknowledged that Depo-Provera has been administered within that community.
Back in December, the head of a medical programme in Ethiopia for potential migrants to Israel said that the shots, which are taken every three months, are voluntary and can be discontinued at any time.
After the TV documentary was aired and following pressure from human rights groups, the Israeli Health Ministry banned the use of the controversial Depo-Provera jab among Ethiopians.
Nevertheless, many Ethiopians clearly feel aggrieved and that is understandable. It is only right that their stories are told. The 35 women interviewed for the TV documentary revealed that Israeli officials overseeing their migration to Israel treated them insensitively, giving them poor information about birth-control options and the potential side effects of Depo-Provera before and after arriving in Israel.
It seems these officials took the liberty to interfere in Ethiopians’ intimate private lives, mirroring those Western aid agencies that believe they have a duty to curb population growth and to monitor sexual health among the poor.
Perhaps it is even true that some Israeli officials gave Ethiopians the impression that a refusal to take birth control would disqualify them from moving to Israel, as the documentary claimed.
The women recounted being told that landlords in Israel do not like to rent out apartments to big families. As one Haaretz columnist wrote, ‘What the original television programme uncovered is an insensitivity to a traditional culture and imposing Western norms in what likely began as a well-meaning attempt to help families make an easier adjustment to the shock that was ahead of them when they moved to Israel and once they arrived’.
The Ethiopian community, who come from a radically different society to Israel’s, has come up against clumsy and insensitive officials in the past. In the late 1990s, it was revealed that blood donated by Ethiopian Jews in Israel was secretly dumped because of fear that it might be contaminated with HIV.
Yes, a measure of racism, prejudice and unwarranted interference in Ethiopians’ family planning has been at play here. And no woman should be forced or manipulated into taking birth control. Yet while those interviewed for the documentary felt tricked or badly treated, others may well see access to contraceptives as a chance of taking control over their family planning. Some Ethiopian women, Haaretz points out, prefer going to a clinic a few times a year for an injection rather than taking pills daily in front of potentially disapproving family members.
According to the doctor in charge of the medical programme in Ethiopia, ‘injectable contraceptives are the most desired throughout [Ethiopia]. They are easy, culturally preferred, and offer the ability to be on birth control without a woman informing her husband, which is an issue here.’
In the international media coverage and outrage, all the nuances and details of the original documentary and Israeli news reports and debates disappeared, and instead Israel was depicted as a genocidal, racist state intent on ethnically cleansing dark-skinned people.
It is particularly baffling that anyone would take seriously the idea that Israel sterilises Ethiopians. The Depo-Provera jab is effective for three months and the women have to return to clinics for booster shots, which they do voluntarily because, contrary to what some seem to believe, Ethiopian women can actually think for themselves.
If Israel really wanted to stop the growth of its Ethiopian community, there would be more effective means to do so than administering contraceptive jabs, never mind running large-scale programmes to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the first place.
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