Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Blood Libel Redux

Ethiopan Jews joined a dance with Torahs for Jerusalem's Sukkot last month

Blood was flowing on Jerusalem streets this week, after 11 out of 200 ethnic Ethiopian protesters were badly wounded in clashes with authorities. Ethiopian Jews are incensed that local bloodbanks refuse to store their blood, and staged a large demo. They dismiss the official explanation that their donated blood might be tainted because large numbers of Ethiopians migrated from AIDS-endemic Africa. Community leaders point to blatant racism, and suspect that the real problem is a repugnance patients feel about voluntarily inserting black blood into their veins.

An informal caste system in place across Israel puts pale-skinned Ashkenazy Jews as the elite, followed by swarthier Sephardic Jews. Even non-Jewish Russian immigrants are regarded more highly than the Ethiopians. Most of the cafe security guards, who would take the brunt of a suicide bomber's blast, are either Russian or Ethiopian, presumably because they are expendable. Or at least affordable. Obviously, the blood of the underclass is on the line.

A decade ago, when Ethiopian blood supplies in Jerusalem were tossed out from first aid clinics, similar protest erupted. (British blood, which has a high chance of being infected with Mad Cow disease, is similarly rejected, hospital officials claim.) Yet almost one quarter of the estimated 80,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel were born here, and Ethiopians represent one of the most venerable and vulnerable communities in the Diaspora. Not until 1769 was the West even aware that this isolated community of highland Jewish farmers and tinkers had survived in Africa. (They considered themselves to be Moses' sole surviving tribe.) Contacts between the Jews of Ethiopia and the West were extremely rare until the latter part of the 20th century, but once famine hit, they arrived in huge number in the 1980s. Although they are full-fledged citizens who must serve in the army, many Ethiopians suffer from discrimination . Almost three quarters of them live below Israel's poverty line.

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