Israeli diplomat praises Ethiopians for demonstrating

An Israeli social worker-cum-diplomat — who once worked to keep the public from learning the high HIV-infection rate among Ethiopian Jews — applauded those immigrants this week for taking a stand on the issue.

"In a paradoxical way, I feel very proud of the Ethiopians for the demonstration…They're feeling secure enough in Israeli society to do that," said Dorit Eldar, now an attaché for community and women's affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C.

The demonstration of 10,000 Ethiopian Jews Sunday outside the prime minister's office in Jerusalem followed a disclosure that blood donated by these immigrants was routinely discarded due to concerns it was tainted with the AIDS virus. The rally, which turned into a violent clash with police, has focused attention on the entire absorption of Ethiopians into Israeli society.

Government officials ex-plained the dumping as an attempt to avoid embarrassing Ethiopian Jews by keeping information about their higher HIV infection rate from the public. Officials also said they threw out blood donations of other high-risk groups such as gays and intravenous drug users, in attempts to protect the country's blood supply.

According to news reports, 520 of the 56,000 Ethiopian Jews are infected with the AIDS virus — 50 times the rate for Israel's other 5 million citizens.

Visiting the Bay Area this week, Eldar recalled another extreme measure taken by the government to keep the information about HIV infection among Ethiopian Jewish immigrants under wraps.

Eldar, an Israel Ministry of Social Affairs regional supervisor in the early '90s, oversaw four Ethiopian temporary-housing sites. In her 2-1/2 years on the job, she was never allowed to write an official memo regarding HIV, AIDS — or tuberculosis — among Ethiopians. When she needed to exchange information, it was either verbally or via unofficial handwritten notes.

"We made a huge effort not to discuss it," she said. "We didn't want anything publicized."

All these efforts came about because government officials, including Eldar, didn't want to stigmatize the new immigrants, she said.

"The intentions were very good," she said. "We didn't want to say there's a higher rate of anything in any population."

Similarly, she said, Israel's government has kept the lid on the higher-than-average cancer rates among emigres from the former Soviet Union.

Thus, Eldar understood the blood-collecting agency Magen David Adom's reasons for secretly dumping the Ethiopians' blood, instead of publicly refusing it. All donated blood is screened for HIV infection, Eldar said, but there is a six-month incubation period for the AIDS virus.

Discarding most blood from this high-risk group — with the exception of rare blood types — seemed like another practical way to keep the infection rate secret, she said.

Now that the HIV rate is public, Eldar said, she doesn't know whether the worst fears about the public's reaction toward the Ethiopians will materialize.

"Obviously, some people will be more hesitant," she said.

While many Ethiopian Jews have seized upon this recent disclosure to dramatize what they feel is their second-class status in Israel, Eldar quickly defends her country's assistance to them.

Armed with a government fact sheet on the issue, Eldar said that Israel has spent three to four times more money on each Ethiopian immigrant compared to those from other countries.

"We felt the need was so much larger," she said. "It's preferential treatment…It was necessary."

Most of the Ethiopian immigrants came from extremely poor, rural areas and had little previous contact with Western culture. Many of them were illiterate and had few skills useful in Israel's job market.

Focused on the recent controversy, Eldar said, few people are acknowledging the fact that Israel accepted all of these immigrants knowing their HIV-infection rate.

"From day one, they were covered by health insurance," she said.

Anyone who expected few problems associated with the Ethiopians' absorption into Israeli society wasn't realistic, she added.

"I feel very bad about the blood thing because of the emotional pain…but I don't feel bad about the absorption process," she said.