Birth rates among Israel's Ethiopian Jewish community have fallen by nearly 50 per cent in the last 10 years. Now, for the first time, a government official has acknowledged that women of Ethiopian origin were being injected with the contraceptive drug Depo-Provera, frequently without their consent.
In a letter, the Health Ministry Director General, Professor Ron Gamzu, instructed gynaecologists "not to renew prescriptions for Depo-Provera for women of Ethiopian origin if for any reason there is concern that they might not understand the ramifications of the treatment." The Ministry stressed that this policy relates to all women who may not fully understand the treatment, and does not refer racial profiling. However, it has been taken as a tacit admission of fault.
While this controversy was first reported on five years ago, the new policy came in response to a report last month by Israeli investigative journalist Gal Gabbay, who revealed testimony from Ethiopian women awaiting emigration to Israel. They described how they were intimidated into taking injections while in transit camps in Ethiopia, given little explanation, and told that it was a condition for moving to Israel. One woman said: "They told us they are inoculations. They told us people who frequently give birth suffer. We took it every three months. We said we didn't want to." Many women continued the treatment once in Israel.
Control over one's own body is a fundamental part of being human. Routinely depressing the fertility of an ethnic group is dehumanising in the extreme. In the aftermath of the revelations, several commentators have suggested that this is symptomatic of Israel's failure to truly accept Ethiopian Jews. There are around 120,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel, around a third of whom were born there. In 2010, the government decided that they would bring the 2,000 remaining Jews in Ethiopia to Israel and close the transit camps by the end of 2013.
Despite the active decision to bring this community to Israel, the state has not given Ethiopian Jews equal treatment. Back in the 1990s, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir alleged that many Ethiopian immigrants were secretly Christians. Over the years, there have been reports that some have been forced to undergo conversions, that long-married couples have been forced to remarry, and that Ethiopian children have been forced to attend segregated schools. It was recently announced that the traditional Ethiopian Jewish clergy, the kessim, will be phased out.
There is also a wider context of racism, directed against African immigrants more generally. Last year, the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu warned that illegal immigrants from Africa "threaten our existence as a Jewish and democratic state". His comments did not refer to Ethiopian Jews per say, but it adds to the backdrop of officially sanctioned discrimination.
In Gabbay's original documentary, representatives from the Joint Distribution Committee, a humanitarian organisation which administers healthcare in the transit camps, dismissed the women's testimony as "nonsense". The dismissal of women's voices is a phenomenon seen worldwide, but is disturbing nonetheless, particularly given the stark power imbalance here.
It is also worth noting that Depo-Provera is not an unproblematic drug, regardless of the consent question. It is a highly effective contraceptive, but possible side-effects include an increased risk of osteoporosis, and a lengthy wait to return to fertility. Withdrawal symptoms can be unpleasant.
Rights groups in Israel have launched protests. Sharona Eliahu Chai, a lawyer for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, said that the Ministry was right to clarify new guidelines, adding: "Findings from investigations into the use of Depo-Provera are extremely worrisome, raising concerns of harmful health policies with racist implications in violation of medical ethics."
This was a violation of the very highest order. It is difficult to see how it can truly be put right without a serious change not only in policy but in deeper attitudes towards Ethiopian Jews. As Emily Hauser asks at the Daily Beast: "if birth control were being forced on Jewish women in any other country-what would we say?"
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.