It was 1984 like the title of that peculiar George Orwell novel. I was around seven or eight years old and perfecting my beatbox and rap skills, when the terrible famine that motivated the Sudanese, US and Israeli governments to rescue, via airlift to Israel, Beta-Israel Ethiopian Jews took place. Ronald Reagan was president. Crack had become an epidemic in most urban American cities. And we were collectively and purposely unaware of the government backed illegal arms sells that would later become known as the Iran- Contra Affair.
It was a strange and difficult time to be a person of color in the world.
There were several operations that brought Ethiopian Jews to Israel, all of which seemed to offer great hope initially. It’s been almost thirty years since that strewn together exodus and Ethiopians are still fighting for basic human rights— so much so that attempting to unpack those struggles here would be a futile disservice. The latest concerns regard claims that Ethiopian women are being forced into allowing the administration of Depo Provera birth control injections is raising great concern with human and women’s rights activist around the globe.
Research on productive trafficking indicates that”…there is a deliberate targeting of these women.” The birth rate in the Ethiopian community in Israel has halved in the last ten years. The National goes on to report that a 2009 study by led by researcher Hedva Eyal revealed that some 57 percent of all Depo-Provera users in Israel were Ethiopian, yet their community represents less than 2 percent of the country’s population: “Medical staff have pressured women to take the contraceptive at Israeli-linked transit centres inside Ethiopia that prepare them for immigration to Israel…officials at the centres threatened to deny an unspecified number of applicants entry into Israel if they refused the drug…Ms Eyal described the drug’s use as part of an “unspoken policy” in Israel that aimed to reduce ‘the number of births in a community that is Black and mostly poor.'”
Many Ethiopian women appeared unaware of the side-effects associated with Depo-Provera and alternatives to it, such as pill-form contraception, she said.
This report and the conversations that have followed, which include discussions on how such practices are racist, should sound terribly familiar to African American women particularly. We’ve been there before, and may still be there in many cases. As Dorothy Roberts reminds us in her introduction to Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and The Meaning of Liberty: “Black motherhood has borne the weight of centuries of disgrace manufactured in both popular culture and academic circles. A lurid mythology of Black mothers’ unfitness; along with a science devoted to proving Black biological inferiority, cast Black childbearing as a dangerous activity. This view has justified the regulation of every aspect of Black women’s fertility…”
What Roberts writes is not a myth. In recent years, much has been examined regarding women of color in North Carolina who were forcibly sterilized by an excessively aggressive state sanctioned eugenics board (read the testimonies of many of those women here). Conversely, a compensation program aimed at paying damages to the victims was halted on the Senate floor.
Yet another dangerous consequence of this horrifying process is the implication that all programs providing Black women with birth control are also tied to a genocidal plot, a terrible misnomer that can discourage women from obtaining the often life-saving services of places like Planned Parenthood. Anti-abortion factions have created misleading propaganda to discourage Black women from seeking out birth control resources that can allow them to decide when and where to become mothers; a particularly horrifying example would be the 2009 film Maafa 21, produced by White right-wing extremist Mark Crutcher. Like the eugenicists, these people also wish to deny our women body autonomy.
Pamela Merrit in this post from Ms. Magazine vehemently addresses “pro-lifers” who remain silent when cases like those unearthed in North Carolina are made public:
Too often eugenics is looked on as a shameful part of German history and many Americans are unaware of the history of eugenics in this country. I’m reminded of the warning that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it… I’m referring to the history of government taking control over people’s reproductive future and how that component of the history of eugenics and is very present today.
Merrit is correct in reminding us that we are doomed to repeat a history that we don’t connect to or learn from. What is happening in Israel to Ethiopian-Jewish women is what has happened, what is happening, to Black women throughout the world, and we should care. We should be outraged that Black women’s bodies are always regarded as problems that need solving, threats, and shameful nasty “things.” What an ugly way to form alliances, but here we are.
EDITORS NOTE: This story originally appeared with the title “The Forced Sterilization of Ethiopian Jewish Women.”
Josie Pickens is a writer and educator who blogs at www.jonubian.com. Connect with her on twitter: @jonubian