Israel's Ethiopian Birth Control Story Reflects A Broader Problem
On Sunday it was reported that Israel has finally admitted to systematically depressing the fertility of the Ethiopian immigrant community (information first reported five years ago) by injecting Ethiopian-Israeli women with the long-acting birth control drug Depo-Provera without informed consent.
In some cases, women were first given the drug while still in transit camps; in other cases, it seems women were regularly injected after arriving in Israel. Some women apparently knew they were being given birth control but were told they wouldn’t be let into Israel if they didn’t agree; others report being told the shots were “inoculations.”
While this story is horrifying enough unto itself, it cannot be removed from a larger and equally disturbing picture.
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.
And the discrimination has never been limited to questions of skin color or country of origin—it’s powerfully bound up with the question of who gets to decide what’s really Jewish; thanks to the hubris of Israel’s founders (secularists who believed that religion was dying out), the right to determine “real Judaism” was long ago ceded to the Ashkenazi-dominated ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate (itself an Ottoman invention).
When a minority faith community must defend itself against a huge and violently hostile world, it makes sense that strong walls go up, and the community polices itself carefully. Moreover, local synagogues or broader communities are forever deciding what it means to be a Jew in that particular setting—if I don’t like how those people do Judaism, I can always go someplace else.
Determining “official” Judaism as a matter of national policy, however, is a different thing all together. Ask Russian Jews who couldn’t sufficiently prove their Judaism—because Soviet authorities had worked very hard to destroy all evidence of it—and were made to “convert” upon arriving in Israel. Ask American-Israelis who grow up anything but Orthodox and have to provide endless documentation before they can get married. Ask the Sephardi community about the ongoing discrimination that still marks Israel’s religious hierarchy.
This most recent example of blatant dehumanization of the Ethiopian community must be addressed at the highest levels. The policy of depressing the community’s birth rate must be investigated, and those responsible must be held accountable.
And Israeli society must decide: Is the Jewish homeland for all Jews, are the soaring promises of equality in our Declaration of Independence to be taken seriously—or is Israel a giant shul in an East European shtetl, with the Israeli government playing the role of a bullying gabbai?
Or perhaps a simpler question: If birth control were being forced on Jewish women in any other country—what would we say?