Israeli Authorities Decry the Rejection of Ethiopian Jewish MP’s Blood Donation

Several Israeli authorities have criticized a decision by medical professionals from the Magen David Adom (Israel’s national Red Cross and blood bank service) to refuse blood donation by an Ethiopian Jewish MP on Wednesday.

Pnina Tamano-Shata, a representative of the relatively new Yesh Atid party, is reported to have attempted to donate blood during a donation exercise outside the Israeli parliament but was told by a medical professional that “Under health ministry directives, we are unable to accept blood from donors of Ethiopian Jewish origin.” However, the medical officer offered to take her blood and freeze it separately, aside from the national bank.

In the aftermath of the incident, the speaker of the Israeli parliament is reported to have ordered the medical team to vacate the parliamentary premises.

Reports of the incident has sparked criticisms from several commentators across the world. Speaking in an interview recently, Tamano-Shata described the incident as an “affront to an entire community on the basis of the colour of their skin.”

The MP, who arrived in Israel at the age of three, revealed that the health ministry refuses blood donation from persons who migrated to Israel at the age of two and above, for fear of contamination to the nation’s blood bank. According to pundits, this directive, which is reported to have been enacted in the 70’s, is especially enforced on citizens from countries with a high rate of HIV infections.

Ethiopia currently has a relatively moderate rate of HIV infections—about 1.5% adult prevalence rate (i.e. approximately 800,000 people) , according to the nation’s HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Office (HAPCO). The rate of HIV infections is reported to have dropped over the past decades as the government and other health organizations have intensified their campaign against the spread of the virus.

But critics say the Israeli health ministry’s refusal to collect blood from Ethiopian Jews over fears of the spread of HIV is simply an excuse since the blood samples can be tested.

This incident brings to the fore a demonstration by Ethiopian Jews in 1996 after it was revealed that their blood donations were being secretly discarded over fears that they may be contaminated with HIV. Although the Prime Minister then, Shimon Peres, had promised to establish a committee to investigate the claims, very little came out of the protests. “I myself took part in that demonstration but nothing has changed since then,” Tamano-Shata remarked.

Israel is home to almost 200,000 Ethiopian Jews who were transferred to the country in two mass migration airlifts in 1984 and 1991. Ethiopian Jews in Israel face several difficulties in blending into Israeli society. A large percentage of Ethiopian Jews in Israel are reported to be unemployed and the small migrant society alleges discrimination.

“I am 32, I arrived in Israel at the age of three, did my military service and have two children. There is no reason to treat me this way,” Tamano-Shata noted.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reported to have placed a phone call to Tamano-Shata expressing his “admiration” for her attempt to donate blood and vowing to review the ministry’s guidelines that places a limitation on blood donation by Ethiopian Jews. A committee convened by the Israeli parliament is expected to review the incident next week.

The Israeli President Shimon Peres is also reported to have expressed his disappointment at the incident saying “There must not be any differentiation between Israeli people’s blood. All Israel’s citizens are equal.”

Israel’s health minister Yael German has promised to call a public consultation to change the ministry’s much criticized guidelines.

Officials have since noted that the ministry does not bar blood donation from all Ethiopian Jews in Israel, only those who were born or have lived extensively in nations with high rates of HIV infection.

Photo: A mobile Magen David Adom blood donation bus.