By Renee Ghert-Zand
The birthrate among Ethiopians in Israel decreased by a dramatic 50% in the last decade, and Israeli journalist Gal Gabai wanted to know why. She investigated the issue for “Vacuum,” her documentary series on Israeli Educational Television, and she discovered some things that left her very uncomfortable — and will surely leave others equally so.
Educational Television posted Gabai’s 25-minute report, titled “Where did the children disappear to?” on YouTube on December 6, two days before it was scheduled to air on channel 23.
In her attempt to find out what the story was behind the shocking statistic, Gabai interviewed Ethiopian women immigrants and learned from them that they were given Depo-Provera (a contraceptive injection containing the hormone progestin administered once every three months) against their will. While some did not understand what the shots were for, others felt pressured into taking them in response to alleged threats that they would otherwise not be allowed to immigrate to Israel. The shots began in the refugee camps in Gondar, continued in the transition camps in Addis Ababa, and continued on after their arrivals in Israel. According to the women’s testimony, this continuity appears to have been a coordinated effort between the medical staff at the clinics in Ethiopia run by the JDC and doctors in Israeli hospitals and clinics.
The women, it seems, were never given proper family planning counseling outlining the various birth control methods, nor were they given the chance to choose the one with which they felt most comfortable. What were they given? The clear message that life would be very hard for them if they were to have large families in Israel.
Some of the women interviewed said they were told that birth control pills were not suitable for them because they were not capable of remembering to take them daily. Video shot with a hidden camera during an Israeli health clinic visit by an Ethiopian immigrant, during which she gets a Depo-Provera shot, indeed documents healthcare providers expressing this exact opinion of Ethiopian women.
Gabai interviewed a female gynecologist who expressed shock at hearing that just about all Ethiopian women are given Depo-Provera shots, saying that it is rarely prescribed and usually recommended only for women who are institutionalized or developmentally disabled (in other words, women who cannot be relied upon to practice other methods responsibly). A male medical expert, however, said Depo-Provera is no big deal and that he had heard that it was the primary means of birth control in Ethiopia in general.
An Ethiopian man who works for the Absorption Ministry denied knowledge of any program to suppress the Ethiopian birthrate, and three kessim, or Ethiopian Jewish religious leaders, emphasizing that all is God’s will, also claimed to know nothing about the alleged forced family planning practices.
A women who works to absorb Ethiopian children and families into Israeli society expressed her astonishment at perceiving a “missing generation” of Ethiopian children and asked why this particular group has been targeted in this way. “We have other disadvantaged populations in Israeli society, like the Haredim and Arabs, and no one ever thought to impose a birthrate suppression plan on them,” she said.
As would be expected, the Health Ministry, the Education Ministry the Jewish Agency, and the JDC all responded to Gabai’s findings with letters denying any intervention in family planning issues among the Ethiopian immigrants.
Gabai proposed a number of motives that could be behind what she uncovered. It could have been “an intention to do good, to prevent poverty, and to help with the adjustment to Western urbanized living.” Or, it could have involved “economic calculations to reduce immigration and absorption costs… or in the worst case, an attitude that looks at Ethiopian children as unworthy.”
“This story reeks of racism, paternalism and arrogance. It’s a story to be ashamed of,” Gabai concluded.
Clearly, more digging needs to be done to get to the bottom of this story. What remains to be seen is whether or not Gabai has actually blown the lid off it. Gabai and her bosses obviously care about the issue — but will enough other Israelis and Jews?
MK Ilan Gilon (Meretz), for one, does care. Following the airing of Gabai’s report, he submitted an official request to Israel’s attorney general Yehuda Weinstein for the launching of a criminal investigation. Gilon emphasized that the women were exposed to drug and hormone related side effects, of which they were not made aware. “It cannot be that the serious news of this invasive interference with the rights of Ethiopian immigrant women’s control over their own bodies will go without redress,” he wrote.