Blood scandal

The country must learn how to view issues not only through the lens of how they might harm the country’s image.

Pnina Tamnu-Shata521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Pnina Tamnu-Shata521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
An unfortunate incident occurred in Israel’s parliament on Wednesday. Yesh Atid MK Pnina Tamnu- Shata, just back from representing Israel at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in Johannesburg, sought to donate blood at a Magen David Adom donation station at the Knesset. She was turned away because the organization rejects donations from Israelis born in Ethiopia.
“Today, I received further proof that equal rights for Ethiopians in Israel is a nice slogan that doesn’t exist in reality,” Tamnu-Shata said. “I contributed through my army service and as an MK, but apparently there is no equality for being a blood donor.”
She said it was “time to put an end to this ugly phenomenon,” and called on Health Minister Yael German “to create a committee with professional outsiders, not only from Israel, neutral people, that will give us a finding… on how to solve this.”
Many other politicians have come forward to condemn the apparent discrimination, including President Shimon Peres and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. “There can be no differentiation between one blood and another in Israel. All citizens are equal. We need new directives,” Peres said.
Tamnu-Shata’s case, which resulted in the MDA donation station being removed from the Knesset, is part of decades of struggle by the Ethiopian community regarding this issue. It is all the more tragic because MDA is one of the most recognizable symbols of Israel.
Because of the sensitivity of this issue, many have been quick to jump on it for political purposes. Anti-Israel voices have used it to illustrate racism in Israeli society. Others have said that because it might paint Israel in a negative light, it should not be discussed.
MDA reacted to the story with disappointment. Erik Levis, a spokesman for American Friends of MDA, told The Algemeiner that this “made a racial issue out of something that wasn’t.... This is strictly a health-related story.”
The organization argues that this is an issue of public health and that it applies to anyone who was born or lived in parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean before 1977. It also says it does not take blood from anyone who resided in Great Britain for six months between 1980 and 1996.
The tragic story of discrimination against Ethiopian blood donations dates from the first mass Ethiopian aliya in 1984. For more than a decade, Ethiopians’ donated blood was secretly discarded. This led to the infamous Blood Affair of 1996, with mass Ethiopian Jewish protests and a commission of inquiry run by former president Yitzhak Navon.
In 1991, all 14,500 Ethiopian immigrants were subjected to blood tests. Seeman pointed out “no other ethnic or immigrant group was or has been subjected to mandatory testing for HIV.”
Of the 1991 sample, around 2 percent were found to have AIDS. However, a BMJ (British Medical Journal) study from April of this year showed that 39 percent of those tested were infected after arriving in Israel. Yale professor of public health Edward Kaplan said that 2 out of 10,000 donations might be infected. Only in 2005, after another protest, was blood of Ethiopian-born Israelis accepted.
The AIDS excuse for rejecting blood from Ethiopian-born Israelis has never had solid scientific backing and it has often been part of a stereotyping campaign subjecting this group to discriminatory and secret policies. There was no evidence that those like Tamnu-Shata, who made aliya in 1984, were more likely than other Israelis, or than other immigrants from other countries, to have the disease; and yet there has always been a policy defining them as a risk group. The essence of equality is having the same criteria for people, regardless of skin color and country of origin.
The decision on whether to define Ethiopia as as a risk country should take into account changing data; today South Africa has a prevalence of AIDS almost four times that of Ethiopia. It appears that MDA has not seriously investigated this issue and updated its guidelines.
Condemning MKs for making this into a political issue does not help anyone. The country must learn how to view issues not only through the lens of how they might harm the country’s image, but how policies harm citizens, in this case by unfairly stigmatizing them as disease carriers. It is wrongheaded to blame the messenger. It is patently illogical to reject the blood of people who have been citizens of Israel for almost 30 years and who are no more likely than average to have blood-born diseases.