Claiming that Israel is a racist county, thousands of Ethiopian immigrants converged on the Prime Minister’s Office this week to decry what they termed the nation’s “discriminatory practices.”
Leaders of Israel’s Ethiopian community organized Sunday’s demonstration after the Israeli daily Ma’ariv revealed that Magen David Adom, which operates the country’s nationwide blood bank, routinely discards blood donated by Ethiopian olim out of fear that the blood is contaminated with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres voiced an apology for the events leading up to Sunday’s demonstration.
“I don’t think that what has happened was a matter of a policy, but of a mistake,” he said, referring to the way Ethiopian blood donations were handled.
“I regret” the recent developments, he said, adding that Israel’s Ethiopians “were hurt, they were insulted.”
Israeli Health Minister Ephraim Sneh said last week that his ministry would continue its policy about blood donations from high-risk groups in order to protect public health.
According to the ministry, Ethiopians are 50 times more likely to be HIV carriers than other Israelis.
Of the 60,000 olim from Ethiopia – a country where AIDS is widespread – 520 have been identified as HIV positive, according to the ministry.
But Adiso Masala, the head of an Ethiopian immigrants organization, said last week that some 300 were infected with HIV.
During the sometimes violent demonstration, which lasted most of the day, many of the 10,000 demonstrators clashed with scores of Israeli police armed with riot gear.
While most of the crowd chanted slogans and waved banners from the sidelines, some threw stones and engaged in shoving matches with the police.
At least 50 Ethiopian Jews and police were injured in the demonstrations. One Ethiopian was badly injured, as were two policemen, one of whom lost an eye.
Although rally organizers and police blamed each other for the escalation of tensions, many eyewitnesses were critical of the police department’s decision to bring in water cannons and tear gas.
Several demonstrators, many of them elderly, as well as dozens of police officers, became ill when the wind changes direction and blew clouds of tear gas directly over them.
Many of the protesters asserted that the decision to discard Ethiopians’ blood constitutes racism.
They also charged that Israeli society discriminates against them in the areas of education and employment.
“There’s a lot of racism here, and the blood issue is just one part of it,” said Shira Eilen, an 18-year-old Jerusalemite.
“Israelis makes us feel as if we’re not Jewish. The blood thing was just the breaking point. Anger in our community has been building for a long time.”
During Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Shimon Peres invited Ethiopian community leaders into his office to discuss their grievances.
Peres, Sneh and Absorption Minister Yair Tsaban promised to form a committee to examine the Ethiopians’ demands.