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Publicity over Aids Among Ethiopians Has Fueled Bias, Activists Maintain

Recent publicity over the number of AIDS cases among new Ethiopian immigrants apparently has fueled discrimination and angered the Ethiopian community as well as public officials.

Israel Television recently aired a program focusing on the incidence of AIDS among the Ethiopians.

Of the country’s 1,123 known AIDS carriers, 393 are Ethiopians, according to the Health Ministry.

But Ethiopian leaders, their advocates and government officials say the numbers are misleading and irresponsible.

First, all of the Ethiopian immigrants have been tested for AIDS while the general Israeli public has not, said Ra’anan Har-Zahav, an attorney representing the Ethiopians. This makes it impossible to draw a meaningful comparison between the incidence of the disease among Ethiopians and among the rest of the population, he said.

Second, the number of actual AIDS carriers among the general public is estimated to be at least twice the number of known carriers, said Har-Zahav. The Health Ministry said it employs no such estimate.

But the Ethiopian immigrants are the only group in Israel that is universally tested, a spokeswoman at the Health Ministry confirmed. The policy was adopted by the government in 1991 because “we knew they came from an area which has a very large risk of carrying this illness,” said Yifat Ben-Hay, the ministry’s spokeswoman.

At the same time, fewer than percent of the Ethiopians are AIDS carriers, she noted.

Absorption Minister Yair Tsaban dashed out at what he called the irresponsibility of the media for reporting the story. He said it was wrong to publish the report about a single ethnic group because it automatically stigmatizes its members and could generate racism, said a spokeswoman.

Tsaban said that while the public has a right to certain information, that right must be weighed against the damage it may cause, and in this case the harm outweighed the benefit.

“The Ethiopian absorption is a test of honor for Israeli society, and because of media competition, the absorption could be ruined,” he said.

Two Ethiopian advocacy groups filed a petition with the High Court seeking an interim injunction against the Israel Television broadcast. They charged it would cause irreparable damage to the community’s image.

Har-Zahav, who filed the petition on the groups’ behalf, argued that even the previews for the program had resulted in instances of discrimination. Native Israelis had removed their children from a camp with Ethiopian children at their caravan site near Haifa while Ethiopian children were barred from a nearby beach, he said.

The court ruled that it would not stop the broadcast but that the community must be given the chance to respond on television. An Ethiopian representative appeared and spoke at length on the program, which aired last Friday.

The community also won the right to go on the air again shortly after schools reopen next month.

The Ethiopians want the opportunity to counter the damage they believe was done by the reports — damage they fear will show up in the classroom, said Har-Zahav.

Meanwhile, Jewish Agency Acting Chairman Yechiel Leket issued a statement this week saying that Israel had absorbed tens of thousands of Ethiopian immigrants and “no massive occurrences of serious diseases” were ever found among them.

He pointed to the more than 5,000 Ethiopian teens who study and live in Youth Aliyah villages and said, “Special health problems of public consequence were never encountered there.”

Uri Gordon, head of immigration and absorption for the agency, said the publicity does the Ethiopians an injustice because it is based on partial and faulty information.

The comprehensive medical examinations prove the number of people carrying the disease is “small and inconsequential,” he said.

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