Open Zion

12.13.13

Why Is Israel’s Red Cross Rejecting Ethiopian Blood?

When Member of Knesset Pnina Tamano-Shata offered to donate blood at a drive organized Wednesday by Magen David Adom (MDA)—the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross—she didn’t expect to stir up a huge controversy in the press, the health ministry, and the government at large. Or maybe she did.

MDA officials rejected her blood on the grounds that it was “the special kind of Jewish-Ethiopian blood,” which Health Ministry directives prohibit them from using for fear of spreading HIV. Tamano-Shata explained that she was born in Ethiopia but raised in Israel from the age of three. It made no difference. If she wanted, she could donate blood, but her donation would be frozen and never used. When she kept objecting, she was sent to speak with the supervisor, who told her, “Sweetheart, don’t be insulted. You’re right, but these are the Health Ministry’s directives.” Tamano-Shata’s colleague, tagging along with cellphone in hand, caught the whole thing on video.

Then all hell broke loose. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein chased the MDA officials from the parliament. Tamano-Shata said she was insulted by the apparently discriminatory guidelines. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called her and promised that the guidelines would be reviewed. President Shimon Peres denounced the guidelines, saying, “There can be no differentiation between one blood and the other in the State of Israel.” In short, everyone quickly and tacitly agreed that the whole situation could probably be summed up in a single word: racism.

It’s easy to see why the situation would be read that way, and why Tamano-Shata would genuinely feel insulted. Look at the larger context of Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community. I don’t just mean the indignities they’ve suffered in relation to blood donations (in the mid-90’s, it was revealed that the blood they donated was being secretly dumped) or even the other damage they’ve allegedly suffered at the hands of Israel’s medical establishment (see: the controversy over Depo-Provera, a long-acting birth control supposed to have been administered to Ethiopian women without their informed consent). I mean the entire state apparatus that has for months been demonizing African asylum seekers, calling them “infiltrators” on national news so often that much of the public has begun to think of any Israeli of African descent as such. This racist rhetoric recently eased the passage of a bill allowing Israel to detain African asylum seekers without trial for up to a year in a purpose-built detention facility. And it’s fueled violence against Israel’s black community writ large.

Still, to say that Tamano-Shata’s blood was rejected because of racism is simplistic. The MDA officials were following guidelines of a kind that exists in countries the world over, including the U.S. These guidelines don’t just bar prospective donors born in countries with a high incidence of HIV; they also bar people from Britain, Ireland and Portugal, and homosexuals. So this isn’t really about some people’s blood being redder than others’; it’s about a policy designed to prevent disease from getting into the blood bank.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the policy isn’t inflected by racism and discrimination. Politics and policy are interrelated, and Israel’s policy on Ethiopian-born would-be donors may well have been shaped or sustained by racist attitudes. It’s also eminently possible that the Health Ministry’s directives are just woefully outdated and that Israel hasn’t yet invested the resources in bringing them up to speed with the current science.

The good news is that Tamano-Shata’s story will now force a close examination of this issue. After the story broke, MDA trumpeted that Tamano-Shata surely knew she’d be rejected and accused her of staging a provocation—as if that were a bad thing. The fact is, even if this was a calculated stunt, it’s a stunt that will only result in good. If the guidelines are outdated, the government will now be motivated to change them. If, on the other hand, there isn’t enough data to show that the guidelines can safely be changed, the science will bear that out and the current policy will stay in place. Critics who claim the MK’s stunt may result in compromising Israel’s blood supply are guilty of needless fear mongering. Would the Health Ministry really approve life-endangering directives just to appear politically correct? I doubt it.

All in all, Tamano-Shata did the Israeli public a big favor this week. In addition to serving as a social gadfly, she provided the country with a rare and refreshing sight: parliamentarians across the political spectrum unified in their condemnation of an existing policy. Aryeh Deri from the religious Shas party called it “unacceptable.” Uri Ariel from the right-wing Jewish Home party said he was “shocked” by it. Health Minister Yael German from the centrist Yesh Atid party (to which Tamano-Shata belongs) deemed it “unbearably absurd.” Ahmed Tibi from the Arab Movement for Change party deplored it, saying, “Israeli society and its systems continue to be infected by the deadly virus of racism, aimed at times against Ethiopians and many other times against Arabs.” When was the last time all these people agreed on anything?