Ethiopian immigrants deserve more than an apology

Prime Minister Shimon Peres revealed his diplomatic skills when he met with a delegation of Ethiopian demonstrators and offered the government's apology to their community.

Having suffered unconscionable mistreatment, numerous injustices and profound insults — capped most recently by revelations of government dissembling on blood donations — the Ethiopian immigrants in Israel most certainly deserve an effusive apology.

But nothing can be more foolish and shortsighted than to suppose that such an apology is anything but a minor gesture of goodwill and a momentary attempt to palliate agitated demonstrators. As one of the protesters put it, if an apology is all the government has to offer, future confrontations will make the recent violent clash with the police seem like a minor, harmless incident.

It requires no deep insight to realize that the blood-donation fiasco did not cause the harsh bitterness, burning hostility and uncontrollable rage that characterized Sunday's demonstration. In fact, nothing is wrong with the decision to disqualify blood from immigrants who come from AIDS-afflicted countries. As long as no foolproof way exists to check such blood for the HIV virus, health authorities must do their best to minimize risks. Had even one such donation caused the death of its recipient, the country would have been up in arms against the health authorities for being criminally lax.

That the policy is not racist should be clear: The blood of such "high-risk" groups as homosexuals and drug addicts is also disqualified. And in fact, Ethiopian donations of rare blood types are not discarded but used after having been kept long enough to ascertain their safety. Had there been any prejudice against the donors per se, such donations would have also been disqualified.

But the patronizing attitude with which the matter has been handled is clearly racist. Officials at Magen David Adom, the agency responsible for collecting blood donations, sought to avoid hurting Ethiopian donors' feelings. In-stead of explaining why the blood in question could not be used, the health authorities told the Ethiopians nothing, while furtively discarding their blood. But this "white lie" — shared by hundreds of nurses and medics — was bound to be discovered, ultimately hurting Ethiopians' feelings far more acutely.

The practice was neither merely foolish nor simply immoral and unethical. It is a symptom of the same kind of insufferable condescension that has afflicted relations between veteran Israelis and newcomers from less-developed countries ever since the establishment of the state.

Such condescension seems to be an unfortunate but universal human characteristic. And it may be arrogant and unrealistic to expect the Jewish nation to be less prone to ugly manifestations of bigotry only because Jews have been victims of discrimination throughout history.

But there was reason to expect greater understanding. That the nation enthusiastically supported and cheered Operation Moses and Operation Solomon, both of which brought Ethiopian Jews to this country, is significant. As one American columnist noted, this was the first time in history that African people were transported from their native land in order to bring them to freedom rather than slavery.

People often feel their enthusiasm ebbing once the initial elation of a rescue operation passes. Nevertheless the government must continue with enlightened policies. And the fact is that Israel's governments have shown little understanding for the particular problems of the Ethiopian immigration.

Not that the task is easy. Ethiopia is a woefully underdeveloped country, and Ethiopian immigrants cannot be integrated easily. But what seems to trouble these immigrants most is not the inevitable economic and social problems, but the dishonesty and patronizating attitude they meet every step of the way. This is particularly true in education, the army and government service — precisely the areas in which the government could have made them feel welcome and equal.

The violence at this recent demonstration was as ugly as any uncontrollable outburst can be. But there was something refreshing in the uproar that Absorption Minister Ya'ir Tzaban created when he tried to deny knowledge of the blood-donation outrage and blamed the Likud for the problem. If the Ethiopians are savvy enough to have a healthy contempt for the insulting nonsense of political rhetoric, then they cannot be far from total integration.

One can only hope that that violence, censurable as it may be, will beget the right response in the Israeli public. The Ethiopian community is not a charity case. It is a healthy, productive and proud national asset, whose needs must be met with understanding, honesty and straightforwardness.

It will be nothing short of tragic if the Ethiopian ingathering, one of the finest chapters in Israel's history, will end with the creation of an underclass rather than a monument to Jewish oneness.