The politics of blood

Ever suddenly feel like you are in a room looking out the window and everyone is saying things are one way and you look outside and see something else? If you know, without question, that you are correct…do you wonder how you turn it around?

The truth is, it happens a lot to Israelis. I have that feeling now. But this time, we are at fault for blaming the wrong people, for failing to see the politics behind the accusation.

I’m talking about the recent “scandal” related to the blood donations of Ethiopian Jews…and, by the way, let’s not forget a whole heck of a lot of British citizens as well.

There’s a really funny chain of events here and I’m wondering why everyone doesn’t see it. The truth is, last week, before a major storm came in and distracted us…something quite dramatic happened. A team of Magen David Adom (MADA) personnel went to the Knesset to set up a standard blood donation site. This happens all over Israel on a regular basis. Knesset members line up to do their civic duty, have some pictures taken and Israel is a happy place.

It is a courtesy offered to Knesset members, like the ambulance that is stationed there full time in the case of emergencies. I’m a bit sensitive to MADA volunteers – four out of five of my children have volunteered; two regularly volunteer still. My youngest son spent 14 hours yesterday volunteering in the cold Jerusalem weather and went back again today.

So forgive me when I am angry that while these dedicated MADA people were patiently taking blood, along comes a Knesset member who was born in Ethiopia and is well aware of the restrictions created by the Ministry of Health. It’s right there on their site and it isn’t only Ethiopia, in fact, unlike several European countries, Ethiopia isn’t even mentioned.

And it isn’t only Israel. In Canada, blood donors are asked: “Were you born in or have you lived in Africa since 1977?” Are the Canadians racist?

According to the Ministry of Health, you can’t donate if you:

  • lived in England for a cumulative period of 6 months between the years 1980 -1996 or receiving a blood transfusion in England since 1980.
  • lived in Ireland or Portugal for a cumulative period of at least 10 years since 1980.
  • were born or lived over a year in endemic AIDS countries since 1977, [Africa (Northern/southern African countries excluded), South-east Asia and the Caribbean].

Let me say this again…Pnina Tamano-Shata was not born in Israel, she was born in Ethiopia. She lived there until she was three. That means, according to the restrictions of the Health Ministry – NOT Magen David Adom, she is ineligible to donate. Is that racism? No…notice above – Portugal, England, Ireland are in the same boat. Is that insulting? Maybe, but do you risk people’s lives rather than insult? Maybe.

Personally, I doubt there is anything wrong with Tamano-Shata’s blood and if I ever needed blood, I would be honored to have her donate it to me because I believe her blood is as pure as anyone else, everyone else.

What bothers me more than her blood, however, is her nerve. She decided that she would throw up her hands and be insulted and she would aim that insult and anger at the MADA volunteers. When she was gently told that she could not donate blood – something she knew in advance; she arranged to have the volunteers expelled from the Knesset for the great insult, the racism in her imagination, of denying someone based on their color, their blood, for God’s sake. Does it get any worse? Maybe not…if it were true. Of course, it isn’t…

It is what she would have you believe…and so it is up to all of us to look out the window, through the window, to the truth.

Tamano-Shata knew, long ago, that they would not take her blood (she tried fighting this battle at least twice before in the last decade) and she knew, if they agreed to take her blood, they could not use it.

And, she also knew then that the restrictions came not from those volunteers; not even from the organization they so honorably serve. It isn’t that her blood is black (you know, by the way that it isn’t, right?). It isn’t that she is black. Had she lived in England or many other countries, it would have been the same. White or black, it would have been the same. She cannot deny that she was born in a place ranked at the top of the charts in AIDS populations.

As of 2011, Ethiopia had almost 1 million infected people living there with annual deaths at about 67,000. Countries showing higher numbers include: Congo, India (much smaller percentage), Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Russia (same amount within much larger population, so smaller overall percentage again), South Africa (the whopping leader in the world w/ over 5 million infected), Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia (same number) and Zimbabwe. So – taking out India and Russia – both of whom have much larger populations…ALL of the other countries are in…yes, Africa.

So, if you look through the fog she would have you believe, you will see it was all staged, all part of the politics of blood. Pnina Tamano-Shata is from the Yesh Atid party and many of their members, most notably the party chair, likes grandstanding and drama.

I won’t say the restrictions are fair – unlike so many who comment after searching a bit on Google, I will admit that I’m not a doctor, not informed enough to have an opinion on whether the Ministry of Health is over-reacting. What bothers me here is the manner in which Tamano-Shata made her protest. She didn’t target the restrictions or the Ministry of Health; she targeted a bunch of innocent volunteers from a worthy organization that works beyond anything normal to rescue and help Israelis every day of the year.

You don’t have to like what the rule is. I’m not sure I do. Perhaps, the threat that inspired these restrictions is gone. The mistake here is in blaming Magen David Adom (MADA).

Why didn’t Tamano-Shata direct her ire at the Ministry of Health…why didn’t she demand that the Minister of Health resign in shame? Wait…who is the Minister of Health? I’ll admit, I didn’t know. So trusty Google came to the rescue. Yael German. And what party does she belong to…Yesh Atid.

It is very possible that the restrictions could be eased now that AIDS is a disease you can live with, rather than the automatic killer it once was… I’m not against changing the restrictions and it pains me to think of all the blood that is thrown away in an attempt not to embarrass or insult the donors… but to imply that it was never justified, that it was created out of the air and has no basis other than wanting to stop sharing blood with blacks is just wrong.

Maybe, in pushing this to the front, this Knesset member served the purpose she intended… maybe she’ll get the government to ease the restrictions imposed but I don’t for a minute believe her grandstanding was anything but political.

All that was accomplished in this gesture in which a team of volunteers were humiliated, harassed, embarrassed and thrown out of the Knesset – was a disgusting show of power against the WRONG body. Those volunteers were doing something honorable and what that Knesset member did was not honorable. Why didn’t she complain to the Ministry of Health – controlled by her own party? Did she really think that she could get some volunteer to take her blood and force it into the national blood bank?

Something stinks in the state of Israel, in the Knesset itself…and it isn’t MADA. For now, I suggest MADA inform the Knesset that as a result of their volunteers being thrown out of the Knesset, they will no longer accommodate requests to run blood donation drives there. Personally, I think they should pull their ambulance as well.

And Tamano-Shata – I think she should request an opportunity to apologize to people who might well do more for the State of Israel and the people of Israel on a daily basis than she does. She insulted every MADA volunteer in the country – including my children who have fought for this country and more, have rushed time and again, to help whenever they are called and beyond.

They have helped Jews, Christians and Arabs, Israelis and non-Israelis – without hesitation and with complete disregard to race, gender and color. They have stopped on the road, rushing in to help strangers, because that is part of what they have been trained to do and all of what they dedicate themselves to from the minute they agreed to be trained.

How dare this Knesset member abuse these people to grandstand something that is controlled by her own party, something within the very building where she works.

The window needs to be washed clean – not of the insult to Ethiopians in Israel…because that was never the intent of the restriction and it was never about the color of their skin. It needs to be washed from the dirt of politicians who believe it acceptable to publicly embarrass citizens who did nothing wrong and were fulfilling the letter of the laws and restrictions created or at least upheld, by Tamano-Shata’s party and the government in which it serves.

About the Author
Paula R. Stern is CEO of WritePoint Ltd., a leading technical writing company in Israel. Her personal blog, A Soldier's Mother, has been running for more than 5 years. She lives in Maale Adumim with her husband and children, a dog, too many birds, and a desire to write her thoughts and dream of a trip to Italy, Scotland, and beyond.