How to turn a feel-good story into a misleading anti-Israel rant

Apr 8, 2013 | Talia Katz

How to turn a feel-good story into a misleading anti-Israel rant
Yityish Aynaw crowned Miss Israel 2013

In a stunning example of cherry picking, Ruby Hamad has demonstrated that when it comes to Israel, a story of triumph can be turned into a damning parable. It just takes a little willful ignorance and some creativity.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Israel has been applauded internationally for its absorption of Ethiopian Jews, which started in the 1980s with Operation Moses, and peaked with Operation Solomon, which involved a secret 36-hour flight plan carried out by 34 El Al planes, and brought 15,000 people to Israel in one weekend. Since then, despite some admitted and real problems, Ethiopians have largely become a valued and integral part of Israeli society, after facing the challenges that many new immigrants face across the globe – new languages, new cultures, new environments and unfortunately, new prejudices. As Hamad rightly asserts, Israel is just as susceptible to racism and bigotry as any other nation and there has undoubtedly been some ill-feeling and discrimination against Ethiopian immigrants from some individuals in Israel.

Despite these difficulties and other problems of assimilation with respect to a population that arrived in Israel with a low-level of education in the sort of skills needed in a modern Western economy, Ethiopian Israelis are increasingly counted as national representatives across parliamentary, diplomatic, and cultural circles – outstanding examples include H.E. Ambassador of Israel to Ethiopia Belaynesh Zevadia, Member of Knesset Pnina Tamano-Shata, Ester Rada (who has just released her first solo rock record) and 17-year-old Ahtaliyah Pierce, who reached the semi-finals of the “The Voice” (a TV singing competition).

Which brings us to Yityish Aynaw (pictured). Whatever one’s personal feelings are about the pageant world, Ethiopian-born Yityish Aynaw’s appointment as Miss Israel is a feel-good story about ambition and personal achievement – but not according to Hamad. Instead, Hamad says Aynaw’s appointment is proof only of Israeli tokenism and “hypocrisy.”

If anything, the tokenistic number of women and people of colour granted access to privileged positions should serve as both proof and reminder of the continued existence of this very real discrimination. It is, after all, their very rareness that makes their success so notable. Cathy Freeman took our breath away in Sydney precisely because we understand the seemingly insurmountable odds she scaled to get there.

The same goes with Yityish Aynaw. Her victory is so stunning because of the conditions her community has to contend with. Unlike Freeman, Aynaw’s win was largely dependent on other people who granted her victory.

So if Hamad is to be understood, minorities should be refused the honour of representing their community or their country across the board, in order to avoid hypocrisy or – heaven forbid – any misconception that their fellow countrymen might aspire to achieve the same success. This is patently ridiculous. As is the notion that racism both prevents minority groups from reaching their goals, and then in a perverse about face, promotes those who do.

Her proof of this institutionalised racism? A few unnamed individual comments on social media.

Predictably, Aynaw’s crowning was also met with jeers and jibes, with some ridiculing her on Facebook as a ‘toffee queen’ (a racist play on the Hebrew word ‘yoffee’, meaning ‘beauty’).

Apparently, in Hamad’s world, a couple of ugly online comments by unidentified racist idiots equates to undeniable proof of systemic government-sanctioned racist policies.

In fact, she all but accuses the Israeli government of an elaborate scheme to use Aynaw to cover up what she calls “ethnic cleansing”.

One does not need to be a hardened cynic to be slightly suspicious that this [appointment] came so soon after the government’s remarkable confession that it had deliberately compromised the reproductive freedom of thousands of Aynaw’s fellow Ethiopian women.

The “ethnic cleansing” that Hamad is referring to was a story by investigative reporter Gal Gabbai, who, in December 2012 alleged on her television show “Vacuum” that some women who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia complained that they were pressured into receiving contraceptive injections or felt they were not adequately informed as to what they were taking. The story was then covered by Haaretz, the reporting of which led to contentions that Ethiopian women were ostensibly “sterilised” as part of Israeli government policy.

However, in late February 2013, Israel’s Health Ministry ordered an investigation into the allegations “to ensure that there was no such directive from any governmental or other Israeli public organization.”

According to Reuters the Director General of the Health Ministry, Dr. Roni Gamzo, wrote to Israel’s health maintenance organisations that,

“without taking a position or determining any facts based on the allegations,” he instructed that doctors not renew Depo-Provera prescriptions for either Ethiopian women or those of any other nationality “if there is any concern that they do not understand the implications of the treatment.”

Dr Gamzo did say the drug can be given to women who request it specifically, and who understand the side effects as a opposed to other methods of birth control.

“Of course,” Gamzo added, “this must be approached in a manner that is appropriate to the culture [of the women] and with the help of Ethiopian mediators and/or medical translators when necessary.”

Following outrage at the lazy reporting and seemingly deliberate manipulation of vital quotes by Haaretz, in relation to the government’s response, the newspaper issued a correction, and the story was re-written to include new information, indicating the government was not at fault, but that a few individual health care providers may have failed to follow the guidelines for administering the contraceptive. More on this at the UK Daily Telegraph.

Hamad doesn’t mention any of this, only writing that women in transit camps in Ethiopia were “misled or coerced into accepting injections of Depo-Provera.”

The commonly used contraceptive is, despite Hamad’s assertions, neither permanent (it lasts three months or so) nor damaging and, in fact, is considered the preferred method of birth control for women in Ethiopia, who seek it out for its discretion and long-lasting effect.

Because contraceptives may introduce social discord, leading at times to intimate partners’ violence amongst African couples, women of low bargaining powers often resort to family planning methods that are suitable to covert use.

Women can take injections of Depo-Provera while visiting a health facility and remain protected against unwanted pregnancies for three months. This may be done without their husband’s knowledge and without the bother of having to remember to take the pill or to undergo clinical procedures that are involved when opting for implants or intrauterine devices.

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.

No matter how much Hamad attempts to paint the effects of everyday contraceptives as “ethnic cleansing”, the notion is not only ludicrous, but also insulting to the readers of Daily Life, who know full well what contraception is for.

The article should have properly articulated what Depo-Provera was and how it was used in the context of the circumstances, instead of manipulating the facts and blithely ignoring others.

Her argument – that a falling birthrate is akin to “ethnic cleansing” – completely disregards the studies (here, and here) that have shown that there is a correlation between women making choices regarding family planning and improved health, increased education, higher socio-economic status and women’s employment. It is totally unsurprising that birth rates among Ethiopian women started to decline toward the Israeli average once they moved to Israel and began to assimilate to a degree into the dominant culture – as well as take advantage of the greater paid employment opportunities available to women in Israel compared to rural Ethiopia.

Regardless of the truth of the “Vaccum” and Haaretz stories – which deal almost exclusively with shots given in preparation for the initial arrival in Israel and in the first few months in the country – it is crystal clear that overall, any decline in fertility among Ethiopian women over subsequent decades is overwhelmingly the result of freely made decisions by the individual women in question.

To deny these women any agency in these decisions and assume, without any evidence, that decades of reproductive choices should properly have led them to choose to have many more children than they in fact did, is frankly a very odd stance for a supposedly feminist writer to take. But attempts to squeeze a story into a pre-determined anti-Israel mold – no matter how ill-fitting – can do strange things to a writer.

In response to what commenter ‘Rose’ called “a crazy article” which was “looking for a negative” Hamad was forced to concede:

Actually, you are partly correct, I could perhaps have spent some time discussing measures the Israeli government is taking to address this discrimination. It doesn’t, however, undo the fact that the discrimination occurred and is continuing, with or without a black Miss Israel.

Yes Ruby. Even a simple Google search uncovers anything from adult literacy classes, youth groups, scholarships and educational achievement activities, Big Brothers and Sisters, family planning, employment and housing assistance, social networks and women’s and girls’ empowerment courses and classes in driving, language, computers, art and agriculture.

This kind of support is not limited to the Ethiopian community. All new immigrants to Israel are able to access national Jewish Agency Absorption Centres, a unique, low-cost housing arrangement that provides tailored support for new immigrants, including medical care, housing, education and social and language enrichment with dedicated staff teams.

Regardless of the facts, Hamad’s agenda is clear – there is no space for positive reporting when it comes to Israel. So when an Ethiopian-Israeli woman achieves a positive breakthrough, this is not a step in the right direction, perhaps highlighting that more needs to be done, but rather an example of “hypocrisy” to be condemned. It is an opportunity to slam Israel for “ethnic cleansing” by misrepresenting and distorting an allegation which in any case had been largely withdrawn by the original source.

There has been international condemnation calling out Hamad on her complete disregard for journalistic fairness and the most basic responsibility to accurately represent the facts. Daily Life has an editorial duty to ensure that the agendas of its contributors are not considered more important than the facts.


– Talia Katz


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