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Press ReleaseIsrael/Middle East
Ethiopian Controversy In Israel: It's Not Racism
by Harry Wall

Reports that Israel was secretly disposing blood donated by Ethiopian immigrants out of concern it may be AIDS-contaminated elicited accusations of ethnic discrimination and even racism. Some observers seized on the blood controversy to depict Israel -- a country that took great risk to rescue the remnants of Ethiopian Jewry -- as just another race-torn society.

Whatever Israel's mistakes towards its Ethiopian Jewish community, the cause is not racism. Support for the African immigrants, as measured by public opinion and government investment, is strong. Government assistance is much greater than for other immigrant groups. And reports of social discrimination are rare in a country with little experience in black-white relations.

What causes the distress is bureaucratic ineptitude and a cultural gap between a traditional community and a modern, technologically-advanced, highly-competitive nation.

Much of Israel's Ethiopian population, about 50,000 today, was brought to the country in two dramatic airlifts. The first was in 1984, when thousands were secretly flown from refugee camps on the Sudanese border, literally plucked from a fate of starvation and disease. The second operation, in 1991, was from Addis Abba, as rebel troops were closing in on the Ethiopian capital during its civil war. When the immigrants arrived in Israel, it was a moment of jubilation for Israelis, who showered the newcomers with voluntary support.

The euphoria of seeing a community reunited with the Jewish mainstream was not sustainable after 2,000 years. The task of integration into Israeli society, never an easy one in this rough and tumble country, was fraught with difficulty for the Ethiopians. In trying to make up for a generation gap of a millennia, mistakes were made and certain sensitivities were ignored.

Many of the immigrants were placed in temporary housing, often in peripheral areas and usually with other Ethiopian neighbors. Today, most of the immigrants are now living in rented or purchased apartments, thanks to generous government loans or low-interest mortgages.

Parents were encouraged to send their children to boarding schools in youth villages, a customary practice for new immigrants. There, the youths had a better chance to get a good education, unencumbered by the burdens of large families in small quarters. The result, however, was to loosen the tight family ethos of Ethiopian Jews.

The question of religious status, a long-standing controversy, added to their difficulties. A ritual conversion was required by the Israeli rabbinical establishment in seeking a formula for accepting a community whose practices were at variance with traditional Judaism and with a high rate of intermarriage. The Ethiopians, who tend to be observant Jews, resented the doubt placed on their faith.

What brought their anger to a boil was the blood scandal. The Ethiopian community -- with reportedly about 50 times the incidence of AIDS as other Israelis -- was regarded by medical authorities as a high-risk group (a concern, it should be noted, which did not deter the effort to bring Ethiopians to Israel).

Not wanting to stigmatize the Ethiopians by banning their donations, the blood bank officials decided to dump the blood. This only added insult to injury. A wiser policy would have been to consult with the community's leadership to determine how best to deal with this problem.

"Stupid, irresponsible and woeful," was how Prime Minister Shimon Peres described the blood dumping. But not racist. The blood bank officials have a responsibility for reducing the risk of AIDS-contaminated blood. They should have been more sensitive to the Ethiopians, who regard blood donations as a matter of great honor.

The head of the blood services has taken temporary leave of his position in the wake of the controversy. The government has appointed a high-level panel, headed by a former president, to examine the broad range of Ethiopian grievances. And the Israeli public, which had little knowledge of the immigrant's situation, is now much better informed about the community's needs and sensitivities.

Whatever its mistakes, Israel has invested heavily in its immigration programs. Where other Western countries display indifference or hostility toward newcomers, Israel sees their integration as a national priority.

Israel has learned from this experience. It cannot, nor should it assume that it knows what is best for each of its diverse communities. This kind of approach caused blunders in the past with other immigrant groups -- Moroccans, Yemenites -- that continue to fester today.

The Ethiopians, who vigorously took their protest to the street, the corridors of the Knesset and the media have also come out ahead. They have redeemed their pride and their dignity. They also have learned that they need sharper elbows and louder voices to improve their status. In this regard, they have taken a long step toward integration, Israeli-style.

Harry Wall is the Director of the Anti-Defamation League office in Israel.

The Anti-Defamation League, founded in 1913, is the world's leading organization fighting anti-Semitism through programs and services that counteract hatred, prejudice and bigotry.

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