Let’s Get the Facts Straight About Ethiopian Jews and Contraception
by Tamar Sternthal
As a bat mitzvah girl in suburban Philadelphia, I was riveted by the plight of Ethiopian Jews in the late 1980s, and was twinned with Yeshalem, an Addis Ababa girl whose brother had already made his way to Israel. Following the inspiring two-day mass airlift of 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1991, news clippings about Operation Solomon yellowed on my bedroom wall for years.
By the time I finished high school, I was not able to track down my twin or her family – bureaucrats at the Ministry of Interior did not have time for an American teen with poor Hebrew and worn letters. So I don’t know what has become of her. Did her entire family make it to Israel? Did she go to university? Start a career? Get married? Have children?
Was she sterilized?
According to a sub-headline accompanying an Op-Ed in the English edition of Ha’aretz, “The revelation that Israel is sterilizing Ethiopian women adds to a shameful history of abuse of powerless women and communities.” That’s a shocking, horrifying assertion with its overtones of Nazi racism and Dr. Mengele’s experimentation. It’s also completely false. Although it was later corrected, the damage was done.
Along with two news articles in Ha’aretz which purveyed slightly less extreme charges – that Israel allegedly required Ethiopian women in transit camps en route to Israel to receive long-lasting contraceptive injections as a condition for immigrating – the Ha’aretzitems set off a firestorm of global coverage. According to reports, the coerced injections continued even after the women arrived in Israel.
Millions of readers have heard various versions of the story in venues ranging from the mainstream (such as Huffington Post’s“Ethiopian Women Claim Israel Forced Them to Accept Birth Control Shots”) to the virulently anti-Semitic. (“State of Israel forced the sterilization of Ethiopian women” speaks of Zionist Dr. Mengeles.)
Is it true? Did Israel’s soaring rescue of thousands of Ethiopian Jews crash land some two decades later?
The Ha’aretz stories were based on a Dec. 8, 2012 Israeli broadcast called “Vacuum,” with host Gal Gabai. Ignoring information to the contrary, and placing words in the mouths of her interviewees, Gabai relentlessly pushed her pre-determined and unsubstantiated thesis that the coerced injections of Depo-Provera, a contraception shot which lasts three months, led to a 50 percent decrease in the birth rate among Ethiopian immigrants in the last decade.
Besides the abhorrent possibility that Israeli officials and/or employees of the Joint Distribution Committee, which operates the Ethiopian clinics, maintained a “systematic mechanism” (Gabai’s words) to ensure the women receive the shots, are there are other feasible explanations for the prevalent use of Depo-Provera among Ethiopian Jews? Yes, but Gabai, Talila Nesher of Ha’aretz and their foreign colleagues failed to consider them.
Depo-Provera is the most popular birth control method in African countries, including Ethiopia. Many women prefer the shot, a discreet means of birth control, which can be administered without the knowledge of disapproving husbands. A 2005 study carried out by Family Health International found: “Because contraceptives may introduce social discord, leading at times to intimate partners’ violence among African couples, women of low bargaining powers often resort to family planning methods that are suitable to covert use. . . Consequently, a general pattern that has been observed in the contraceptive method mix in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere in the developing world is the predominance of injectables.”
A serious journalist covering the widespread use of Depo-Provera among Ethiopians would have taken into account women’s desire for discreet birth control. Gabai interviewed the head of the Israeli Society for Contraception, who noted the cultural preference for injections, but she completely discounted this point in her conclusion.
Moreover, Gabai ignored other factors aside from alleged coerced injections which contributed to a lower birth rate. For instance, in the modern world, declining birth rates are associated with greater affluence and an improvement in the status of women. As they gain greater study and work opportunities, as well as better access to more advanced medical care and family planning, many women opt for fewer children. Poor populations with high child mortality rates also have high fertility rates. Israel has a lower infant and child mortality rate than Ethiopia.
As demographer Petra Naihmas notes in the Demographic Research journal: “Ethiopian immigrants arrived from a rural, less developed country, where traditionally children have an important economic role to play. Obviously, within a developed urban economy, children are a net economic burden upon the parents until early adulthood and there is an emphasis on the future returns to investment in the education of children. The economic incentive to reduce fertility exists.”
Futhermore, Naihmas contends that “abortions are being increasingly relied upon as a form of pregnancy control, especially among younger Ethiopian women” in Israel. Moreover, she says, women are putting off marriage and children: “The increase in median age of first marriage is particularly impressive for new Ethiopian immigrants, which increased by six years between 1990 and 2000.”
According to a 2007 USAID report, many women in Ethiopia want birth control and are unable to get it; 34 percent of Ethiopian women want family planning services to prolong the time between births, or to prevent additional pregnancies. In their Ethiopian clinics, the JDC provides these critical, sought-after family planning services, and women are treated there from their own free will. These are the same services that are offered in thousands of programs around the world, run, for example, by the United Nations Population Fund. And yet Gabai assigned a sinister purpose to the JDC family planning workshops, referring to them as a “euphemism for decreasing the birth rate.”
Regardless, is it still possible that certain JDC employees were negligent in carrying out their responsibilities, not carefully enough explaining side effects or alternative contraceptions? Might some Israeli health workers have been patronizing or racist, assuming that Ethiopian women could not be relied upon to take pills every day? Of course these are possibilities.
But, is it true, as Gabai says to one of her interviewees, an Ethiopian mother of four, “they told you [having children is] forbidden in Israel”? The mother, who said she intends to have more children, replied: “No, why forbidden? There are loads of children. What, why forbidden?”
Irresponsible, sensationalist reports distract from real social challenges facing Ethiopians in Israel, and do not help them.
There are those, however, who do benefit from this saga. In the digital era, where falsehoods long outlast yellowed news clippings, the lie about Israel’s sterilization of Ethiopians will doubtless become another weapon in the arsenal used by extremists to delegitimize the Jewish state.