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Magic Johnson Trip Highlights the Incidence of Aids in Israel

Israelis engaged in the fight against AIDS were ecstatic upon hearing that Magic Johnson would be visiting Israel in October,

They viewed Johnson’s visit — during which he was scheduled to participate in an exhibition game against the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team — as a means for raising tens of thousands of dollars for AIDS research and education, and for boosting AIDS awareness in Israel.

According to Israel’s Ministry of Health, there have been 249 reported cases of AIDS in Israel. Another 1,064 people are reportedly infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, but have not developed the full-blown disease.

But other health professionals say the number of infected people in Israel is much higher. The World Health Organization places the number of HIV-infected Israelis at about 10,000.

Given these statistics, it was no surprise that AIDS activists here eagerly anticipated Johnson’s arrival.

But when it came time for Johnson, who is infected with HIV, to help raise awareness about the disease, for many activists reality did not live up to expectations.

During his three-day stay in Israel, Johnson participated in only one charity event and made just a few references to the disease that cut short his brilliant career in the National Basketball Association.

Instead, Johnson spent most of his time practicing for the scheduled match-up between members of Maccabi Tel Aviv and Johnson’s All-Stars, a professional team composed of former NBA players and some college standouts.

Johnson, a former NBA superstar, retired in 1992 after testing positive for HIV. Since then, he has toured extensively, lecturing about AIDS prevention and raising money for research.

Many AIDS professionals, from political activists to physicians, privately expressed disappointment with Johnson’s visit, given his stature in the AIDS community.

Though no one faulted Johnson — all agreed that he has contributed more to the AIDS cause than any other single person — some blamed the Israeli government’s lack of initiative, while others said Johnson’s business managers had been uncooperative.

“Magic Johnson’s visit had great potential, but the government did almost nothing to take advantage of it,” said Mikie Goldstein, a board member of the Israel AIDS Task Force.

AIDS AWARENESS IN ISRAEL ‘IS PRETTY LOW’

“The level of AIDS awareness in Israel is pretty low, and the visit could have gone a long way toward correcting misconceptions,” said Goldstein, who added that many Israelis still believe that AIDS is a disease confined to gay men and drug users.

“They think it’s an imported disease, something that Israelis get from foreigners, not something we give to one another. The fact is, AIDS is already in this country, and it is spreading,” he said.

“The government had a golden opportunity here to raise awareness and education, and it blew it,” Goldstein said.

The Health Ministry defended its actions, noting that at its request Johnson and his All-Stars played a spirited charity game with Knesset members that was attended by hundreds of sick and disadvantaged children.

“I think the trip did a great deal to promote AIDS awareness,” said Dr. Zvi Ben-Yishai, chairman of the government’s Israel AIDS Committee.

The game Johnson played “raised several thousand shekels, which will be donated to the AIDS Task Force, and the media attention highlighted the AIDS threat,” Ben-Yishai said. “Magic Johnson has done a tremendous amount to fight AIDS, but not everything he does has to be AIDS-related.”

Business promoter Yehuda Talit, who coordinated Johnson’s visit to Israel, was more blunt: “Johnson came here for one reason — to play Maccabi Tel Aviv. His primary considerations were financial.”

Inon Schenker, executive director of the Jerusalem AIDS Project, a group specializing in education and outreach, said he and other AIDS activists contacted Johnson’s business office months ago, when the visit was first announced.

“We approached the office and requested some sort of assistance that would make his visit here more visible from an AIDS perspective. The answer was, ‘Sorry, you should have contacted us sooner.’ “

Schenker nonetheless believes that Johnson’s visit was far from a failure.

From a legal standpoint, he said, “Johnson’s visit was a precedent. In January, the government decided that foreign workers who are HIV-positive can be denied a visa to enter the country. But Johnson was allowed into the country on business grounds. If Magic Johnson, who has HIV, received a visa and played basketball, no one can deny entry to a Portuguese worker who wants to come and work.”

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