Bias towards Ethiopian Jews

The bias against Jews of Ethiopian origin has infiltrated many aspects of society.

Ethiopian Jews 370 (photo credit: Moshe Shai)
Ethiopian Jews 370
(photo credit: Moshe Shai)
Numerous reports over the past week have painted graphic pictures of apparent decisions made to administer Depo- Provera to Jewish women in Ethiopia as a birth control strategy. There are extensive accounts of this practice being continued even after these women make aliya.
The administration of the drug, which is quite effective in preventing conception for up to three months – and also tends to stimulate weight gain – is being roundly and appropriately criticized in the Israeli media.
There are reports that substantially over 50 percent of the women in Israel who have received Depo-Provera in Israel are Ethiopian. Yet, the citizens of Ethiopian origin comprise only 2% of the Israeli population. Many questions are being asked: Why was this advice given? How much information was provided to the women? Was there free choice or was there inordinate pressure? Who was responsible? What are the long-term health implications? Why has it taken so long for reports to surface? All of these questions are appropriate and important. It is absolutely imperative that those who gave this advice assume the responsibility for it.
But the real issue is not limited to birth control. If we were to uncover the answers to these questions, it would be useful – but not sufficient.
For the implications of the administration of Depo- Provera are wide ranging. Of greater importance is the indication of bias toward the Ethiopian community. It is clear that many who received Depo-Provera may not have made the decision for themselves, fully aware of the consequences of that choice.
They may not have been presented with all of the facts, data and implications. They may not have been aware of their right to understand the advice being given to them, to ask questions, to challenge, and their right to refuse.
Anyone who has visited the Jews of Ethiopia and has engaged with them in Gondar or Addis Ababa is aware of their poor living conditions and the limits of their formal education. Many have been deprived of opportunities to learn literature, mathematics, geography and science. But that does not mean that they cannot learn, and it does not mean that they cannot make valid judgements for themselves and their families when they are patiently provided with adequate information.
The real tragedy here is that there are biased assumptions against Ethiopian Jews.
Because many have never learned how to learn, there is a widely held attitude that Ethiopians cannot learn. So we make decisions for them because some assume that they cannot make good decisions for themselves. But we know that lack of knowledge does not mean lack of intelligence.
When provided with information and patiently helped to understand the consequences of choices, there is not a single shred of evidence that members of the Ethiopian community cannot make responsible decisions for the totality of their own lives – not only with regard to healthcare.
With patient guidance and nurturing support, they will make quality decisions about the many choices affecting their lives and those of their families.
The bias against Jews of Ethiopian origin has infiltrated many aspects of society.
For instance, because many make aliya without work experience or skills beyond what they absorbed in their previous society, which was primarily agrarian, they are not equipped for many jobs in the Israeli work force. Our tragic error is behaving as if this is situation must be a permanent condition that is irreversible. Our bias prevents us from investing adequately in their future to ensure that the prerequisite skills are both taught and learned.
Without a far more extensive job training program, we will deprive many from the Ethiopian community and the Israeli society of the rich contributions that they might make. Data indicates that between 65% and 72% of Ethiopian school children in Israel live below the poverty line. Unless we train their parents for jobs that will enable them to earn a living wage, this will not change. They can learn – and we must teach them. Our unintended – and maybe even unconscious – bias hurts Israeli society as much as it hurts them.
Our challenge in relating to the nearly 130,000 olim of Ethiopian origin is not to make decisions for them – but to empower them to make the right decisions.
When others make decisions for them, these well-intentioned patrons deprive them of owning the responsibility for those decisions. A prized privilege of being citizens in Land of Israel is the opportunity to make decisions for one’s destiny. But with that opportunity also come the consequences – both positive and negative – of those decisions.
The challenge of all those agencies, institutions and government departments is to fight the inclination to make the decisions that we think are the correct ones and, instead, respectfully nurture the acquisition of skills and knowledge for Ethiopian Jews to make the best decisions for themselves.
The writer, a rabbi, is the president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ).