The revelation that Israel is sterilizing Ethiopian women adds to a shameful history of abuse of powerless women and communities.
It's hard to believe, but in Israel, in 2012, Ethiopian women are forced to receive injections of the Depo-Provera contraceptive. This injection is not a commonly prescribed means of contraception. It is considered a last resort and is usually given to women who are institutionalized or developmentally disabled. Yet according to an investigation recently aired on the “Vacuum” documentary series hosted by Gal Gabay and shown on Israeli Educational Television, it is also given to many new immigrants from Ethiopia.
This is not the first or only case where the state has interfered in the lives of people who have limited means of resistance. And as in other cases, the system that carried out this policy is extremely sophisticated, so it is hard to find a specific person who is responsible or a signed and written order. But the televised investigation, conducted with researcher Sava Reuven, found that more than 40 women have received the shot.
Depo-Provera has a shameful history. According to a report by the Isha L'Isha organization, the injections were given to women between 1967 and 1978 as part of an experiment that took place in the U.S. state of Georgia on 13,000 impoverished women, half of whom were black. Many of them were unaware that the injections were part of an experiment being conducted on their bodies. Some of the women became sick and a few even died during the experiment.
There are many examples across the world of efforts to reduce birthrates among disadvantaged populations that lack the resources and the capability to resist. During the 1960s, the U.S. was concerned by the increase of the population in Puerto Rico. In 1965, it was reported that 34 percent of Puerto Rican mothers aged 20 to 49 had been sterilized.
The injections given to Ethiopian women are part and parcel of the overall Israeli attitude toward this group of immigrants. During the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of Ethiopian Jews spent months or years in transit camps in Ethiopia and Sudan. Hundreds died en route to Israel simply because a country that is supposed to be a safe haven for Jews decided the time wasn’t right, they couldn’t all be absorbed together or they weren’t Jewish enough – who had heard of black Jews?
In transit camps today, future immigrants enter a horrifying bureaucratic entanglement, which gives them the burden of proving they are worthy of arriving in Israel. As in the past, those who arrive here are not quickly released from the grasp of state institutions. They continue to receive “treatment” in absorption centers, where the children are sent to religious boarding schools and included in special education frameworks, while the parents stay in ghettos and the women continue to receive injections. We are told there is no choice. The repressive, racist and paternalistic policies continue unhindered – policies that are supposedly in the best interests of the immigrants, who don’t know what is best for them.
This policy of total control over their lives, which starts while they are still in Ethiopia, is unique to immigrants from that country and does not allow them to adjust to Israel. Using the excuse that they need to be prepared for a modern country, they are brainwashed and made to remain dependent on the state absorption institutions.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee said the claims the women made in the investigation were nonsense. This reminded me of some other women who spoke nonsense, such as the mothers of the kidnapped Yemenite children or the Moroccan women who underwent “treatment” for ringworm. To this day, their words are dismissed as nonsense. If they tried to sterilize me or take my children away, I think I would be talking nonsense too.
The writer is a group instructor for women of Ethiopian origin on behalf of the Achoti – Women in Israel organization and served as a spokeswoman for the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews.