Late this past January a story out of Israel raised disturbing questions about the nature of Israeli democracy and the degree to which Israel can be said to be home for all Jews regardless of race or nationality. In condensed form, the story is this – Ethiopian Jews who have migrated to Israel since the mid-1980s under the Israeli Laws of Return were given Depo-Provera, a long-term birth control drug that is given via injections, without informed consent over many years.
While long rumored, only this past month did the Israeli government tacitly admit that wrongdoing had occurred by ordering and an end to the policy of giving birth control injections to women who might not understand its effects. While it is not clear how widespread the practice was, initial reports from the Israeli press suggest many women were first injected while in transit camps to Israel and were led to believe that they would be denied entry if they refused. Other Ethiopian women, in turn, were led to believe by Israeli medical officials that the injections were vaccinations, vitamin boosters or other such non-reproductive shots.
Though we may never know how many women were subjected to this practice for sure, there is a hint to be found in the demographic data tracking the fate of the Ethiopian Jewish community since their entry into the Promised Land. According to an Israeli investigative journalist, the Ethiopian community’s birth rate has plummeted by 50 percent over the past 10 years, which would put its decline among the most dramatic in the world. If such a steep decline were to occur so quickly in a population in Europe or the United States, alarm bells would have no doubt raised an outcry in the public health community.
Some in Israel and outside it have tried to explain, if not defend, the reports as either overhyped by Israel’s enemies or argue that non-consent was misconstrued as being more prevalent than it actually was. Indeed, one can point to similar populations that have emigrated from poor, agrarian societies into wealthy, advanced societies which have experienced similar declines in birth rate. U.S. Hispanics, for instance, have seen a similar decline, albeit over a much longer span of time, and low birthrates are a hallmark of every developed society.
Be that as it may, the charges being made against the Israeli government by Ethiopian Jews does not occur in a vacuum. As a post on the Open Zion blog at The Daily Beast points out, the birth control scandal is merely one data point in a relative sea of examples that suggests that Ethiopian Jews, who are black and poor, have found a less than a warm welcome in their new homeland. Ethiopian Jews, for instance, were required to take HIV tests before entering Israel — which no other group of Israelis was ever required to do. Partly as a result of this fear of African HIV, the blood donations of Ethiopian Jews were routinely discarded for 12 years between 1984 – the outset of mass Ethiopian migration into Israel – and 1996.
It just wasn’t Ethiopian blood that was questioned, either. Ethiopian Jews were sometimes required to partake in conversion ceremonies to demonstrate their faith to skeptical Israeli religious authorities, while some couples were forced to remarry using rites acceptable to Israeli rabbis – who have the final say in determining what constitutes Judaism in an officially Jewish state. In another example, the Israeli religious establishment has stated it intends to abolish the Ethiopian community’s traditional clergy.
It should be noted that Ethiopian Jews have not been the only ones to suffer discrimination in Israel. Sephardi Jews, who came to Israel from around the Middle East and North Africa after the establishment of Israel by European, or Ashkenazi, Jews in 1948 experienced similar, though arguably not as intense, discrimination and mistreatment. Like the Ethiopians, the Sephardim were poor, less educated, ethnically different and were generally given short shrift by Ashkenazi officialdom and suffered from widespread prejudice in the larger Ashkenazi society they found themselves in.
Still, as far as is known there were no allegations of the use of birth control to limit the Sephardic population of Israel in the same way as is alleged in the case of Israel’s Ethiopian community. For similar examples, one has to go back to much darker chapters in Western history, such as the U.S. experience with eugenics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Edwin Black’s seminal book “War Against The Weak” is probably the best and most detailed account of what occurred in America during those years. At the time, the U.S. was subject to a wave of immigration that, from Europe, brought a seemingly unending torrent of Slavs, Southern Europeans and ironically, Eastern European Jews to America’s shores. From Asia, Chinese and Japanese migrants, like Europeans, left their homeland to settle up and down America’s Pacific Coast.
While the Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1907 “Gentleman’s Agreement” with Japan choked off the flow of Asian migration into the western United States, immigration of “undesirables” from Europe was a tougher problem. For one, the connection between the U.S. East Coast and Europe was much more deeply ingrained than that between the Pacific Coast and Asia. For another, America’s capitalist powerhouses, centered in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and upper Midwest, demanded an unending supply of cheap labor that only mass immigration from Europe could provide.
The problem, therefore, became what to do with the newcomer’s descendants. Add in the problems caused by industrialization that produced immense slums filled with poor people and the unyielding problem of the rural poor in Appalachia and the South, it seemed to many people that the country was being overrun with the “wrong” sort of people – that is, people who were not WASPs – White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Offering a solution to this problem, advocates of a new “scientific” discipline of eugenics entered the picture.
Eugenics was an attempt to marry the newly-emergent scientific field of population genetics to social problems of the sort bedeviling America at the turn of the last century. Closely associated with Herbert Spencer’s theory of Social Darwinism, eugenics offered the promise of making a better America by breeding better Americans. It was, and remains today, a deeply controversial, even repugnant idea: Social problems are purely the fault of individual circumstance and predisposition. For American robber barons reveling in the riches amassed by unfettered Laissez-Faire capitalism, such an idea proved extremely popular and was widely supported. Eugenics became an accepted academic discipline, funded by the wealthy, and its advocates began to lobby for public policy to put into practice their ideas.
The results were horrific, and presaged worse to come. In 1907, the U.S. state of Indiana passed the first sterilization law premised on the ideas of the eugenics movement, which was followed by California, Virginia and a slew of others. These laws authorized the forced sterilization of those deemed unfit or feebleminded and supported at the public’s expense. Blindness, deafness, muteness, mental illness, homelessness and many other conditions deemed a burden on the public purse became justification for one to be rounded up by the state and medically sterilized by medical officials in the state’s employ.
In what became the most infamous case of forced sterilization in America, a young woman by the name of Carrie Buck – a seventeen-year-old-girl from Charlottesville, Va. – was chosen by sterilization advocates to be the first person sterilized under her state’s new eugenics law. Carrie, who already had a child out of wedlock and had a reputation for promiscuity, was seen as a viable candidate to test the constitutionality of the new Virginia statute since both she and her mother were already wards of the state at the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded.
In what today seems a Kafkaesque joke of a hearing, so unreal that we want to believe it is parody, medical experts and Eugenics advocates argued the Buck brood was obviously unfit and thus ripe candidates for medical sterilization. A judge agreed, and so, too, did the U.S. Supreme Court. None other than Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote the majority opinion backing Carrie Buck’s sterilization.
Writing for the majority in 1927, he stated that “three generations of imbeciles is enough,” and “it is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” Carrie was sterilized, and thousands more like her followed. Early 20th-century America being what it was, these laws mostly unfairly targeted the poor, the downtrodden and those unwanted ethnic groups that sullied the country’s idea of itself as a white, prosperous, Christian nation by their mere existence.
What transpired in America, however, paled in comparison to the horror committed in the name of racial health by Hitler’s Germany, where not only was sterilization of the unfit de rigueur, so was the wholesale massacre of unwanted, non-Aryan peoples. In the Aryan paradise Hitler wanted to create, the lucky ones were to be merely enslaved and their culture destroyed – such was to be the fate of the Slavs of Eastern Europe. The unlucky ones, such as the Jews and Gypsies, were to be annihilated en toto – exterminated as vermin or excised like a cancer. It is no coincidence, then, that sterilization laws began to be overturned here in the United States and the Eugenic movement withered worldwide as the Nazi regime took eugenics to its “final” conclusion.
Given this history, that Israel – itself a country founded as a refuge for those victimized by such unspeakable crimes – could not only contemplate but apparently also condone a policy rooted in the same ideas and prejudices is deeply depressing. It is further evidence, as if we needed more, that the impulses to fear, loathe and seek to eliminate that and those who are different or troublesome can be found in every society. When put under extreme pressure, society – at the behest of people espousing bad ideas – can do terrible things. It is proof, once again, that no country, society, people, or faith is exempt from this kind of evil.
But it offers a chance for hope, too. It is to the Israelis’ credit that a muckraking Israeli journalist dug up this story and that many there are outraged over what happened. Israeli liberalism, as seen in the recent election there, is not entirely dead yet, nor are Israel’s democratic institutions totally bereft. Given time, an investigation can be launched and justice eventually done. In the long run, the scandal can be used as teachable moment to show how easily the poor, the different and the disenfranchised can be victimized and ground under.
It also demonstrates once again the old maxim that all it takes for evil to triumph in the world is for good people to sit back and do nothing. Israel’s feisty journalists and activists demonstrate that there, at least, many good people aren’t entirely resting on their laurels. They are hard at work seeking out injustice and calling out the privileged and the powerful for their crimes. Though it is buried in a terrible scandal, this is good news that everyone needs to hear.