We need to talk about AIDS

A lack of education, anonymous services and information about risk groups is failing those at risk of HIV in Jerusalem. We should all be worried about how this endangers our city and our community.

AIDS Ribbon (photo credit: REUTERS)
AIDS Ribbon
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As of 2012 the Health Ministry put the number of HIV cases in Israel at approximately 8,000 – but in likelihood the number is much higher.
Many living with HIV won’t know their status, or won’t get tested for fear of it going on their health records. And while Israel is no South Africa or Zimbabwe, there is a hidden HIV epidemic – in Jerusalem, the carriers of the virus are in hidden populations who go untested and untreated. It’s hard to reach these people, so HIV and STDs spread, undiagnosed, through communities. At its core, this situation is caused by two things that are missing in Jerusalem: effective education about sexual health and sexuality; and services that are tailored for those affected by HIV.
Sex education exists in Jerusalem, but it does not reach everyone who needs it.
Secular teens are usually taught about sex and STDs, if not at home then at school. It’s not perfect. Your teacher might be a generation older than you, and maybe a bit conservative – but the basics are provided. However, if you go into religious communities, then there isn’t an effective sex education curriculum.
Classes might be limited to the halacha and marriage preparation. If your rabbi forbids masturbation, then you’re unlikely to hear about HIV, Syphilis, anal sex or condoms. And although those inside and outside religious communities commonly assume that religiosity means chastity, there will be subgroups who are promiscuous.
One story I learned of from the Jerusalem Open House was that of a yeshiva student who arrived to the organization after contracting an STD. He is married with children and did not consider himself to be gay despite having occasional sex with other men. He never received sex education, didn’t know to put on a condom, and just didn’t use one when he slept with other men. He had to come to Jerusalem Open House to learn how to use a condom. This is not an uncommon case for the organization.
Another problem is that Jerusalem does not offer enough services that can reach these hidden pockets of people at risk of HIV. Of course, most people can go and ask for a blood test from their GP – but in a tight-knit community like Jerusalem, it’s entirely possible that, say, your doctor is your cousin’s husband. If you’re having an extra-marital affair, do you really want to tell another community member that you might be at risk of HIV? For most people in Jerusalem going to the doctor just isn’t an option.
Anonymous testing is the best way of encouraging all types of Jerusalemites – secular and religious, Arabs, Jews and Christians – to come and get tested. Then there is no danger of relatives or friends discovering and exploiting someone’s HIV status. But at the moment, only the Jerusalem Open House (JOH), an LGBT community organization, offers this service in the entire region of Jerusalem.
It’s clear that in Jerusalem, we just aren’t talking about HIV enough, or thinking about who might have it.
This year, a newborn baby died of AIDS in Hadassah Hospital – because her parents were never tested for HIV. We later learned that this is not a lone case and that an average of four babies are born with HIV in Israel every year. Then there are particular at-risk groups who are not identified – perhaps because it’s politically expedient to ignore them – and therefore neglected by policy.
Last week, representatives at the Knesset discussed the interim findings of some new and unprecedented government research into prostitution in Jerusalem. The research identified 27 men and 13 women who sold sex in Jerusalem. 75 percent of the men were minorities. That Arab men are selling sex to other men, and risking their sexual health, is indicative of the lower social status of Arabs in Israel. It’s also worrying for them and their communities: East Jerusalem does not have the facilities for HIV testing and advice. Now that this group of sex workers has been identified, someone can step in and offer them testing and advice. But the combination of hidden risk-groups and inadequate services has the potential to be deadly.
In Jerusalem, large-scale HIV and AIDS infection isn’t the issue – for now. However, when we look closely, it’s clear that a lack of education, anonymous services and information about risk groups is failing those at risk of HIV in Jerusalem. We should all be worried about how this endangers our city and our community.
In honor of World Aids Day the Jerusalem Open House is offering anonymous, free testing on November 30, 2014, from 5 p.m. (http://joh.org.il).
The author is a political researcher and a recent immigrant to Jerusalem.