Annie Chappell — Class 15: Race, Faith and Destiny

Both Professor Seeman’s article “‘One People, One Blood’: Public Health, Political Violence, and HIV in an Ethiopian-Israeli Setting” and Ronit Kertsner’s 2011 documentary Torn address the interplay of race and faith in Israel and how those factors affect people who want to live and be accepted in Israel and bureaucratic attitudes and policies. 

Professor Seeman presents an ethnographic account of the Blood Affair as a critical event, what lead up to the 1996 demonstration, and how the national policies in place cannot be separated from cultural and racial discourse. While there are still some Ethiopian Jews (also called Beta Israel) migrating to Israel in minor numbers today, there were two significant migrations: the first known as “Operation Moses” in 1984, which rescued 7,800 Beta Israel from refugee camps, and the second, in 1991, involved airlifting 14,200 Ethiopian Jews just before Ethiopia’s Mengitsu regime collapsed (Seeman 1991, 161). It is significant to note (for discussion soon following) that about 2,800 Beta Israel were left in Ethiopia during the second wave based on the ruling that they could no longer claim automatic Israeli citizenship because they or their ancestors had converted to Christianity (Seeman 1991, 179). If Beta Israelis can make it past the difficulties of entering Israel and claiming citizenship, they then face issues of discrimination, especially low standards of education, problems with state health services, and poor treatment of Ethiopian-Israeli soldiers (Seeman 1991, 167). While Ethiopian-Israelis dealt with all of these problems everyday, one discovery was the final event that drove them to demonstrate the stereotype of Ethiopian passivity to be incorrect: the Blood Affair.

In a report released on January 24, 1996 by Maariv, journalist Ronal Fischer brought to light the finding that the Ministry of Health had secretly directed blood banks to dispose of Ethiopian-Israeli donations in 1984 because of a suspected higher likelihood for Ethiopians to contract HIV (Seeman 1991, 159). There was very little conclusive evidence to support this directive, and even as epidemiological circumstances shifted this policy was never changed (Seeman 1991, 174 and 183). On January 29, five days following the report, as many as 10,000 demonstrators arrived in front of the Prime Minister’s office. Beyond just the cry for immediate policy change, Seeman submits, the rage and grief demonstrated at the protest was significant to how Ethiopian-Israelis would move forward following that day, indicating they had “begun to reorganize their relations with the state, with ‘the Jewish people’ broadly conceived” (Seeman 1991, 167). Following the demonstration, the Navon Commission was founded to investigate why the revealed health policy was put in place. However, the commission was not allowed the legal power needed to do a full, in-depth inquiry into the issue and did not significantly address the other other instances of discrimination reported by the Ethiopian-Israeli community. In the end, the Navon Commission determined that the policy to discard blood donations from Ethiopians “had been fully justified at the time it was made” (Seeman 1991, 181).

Through his discussion of the Blood Affair and the Navon Commission, Seeman expresses ways in which discrimination against Ethiopians in Israel exists with further bias against Christianity. While testifying before the commission, one prominent religious leader for the Beta Israel claimed that the higher instances of HIV and AIDS in Ethiopia was only among Christians and the Jews who would “mix (sexually…socially…and religiously) with Christians” (Seeman 1991, 185). In his conclusion we can infer that the real risk of Ethiopian-Israelis contracting and spreading HIV should be low since about 2,800 Beta Israel were left behind during the airlift of 1991 because of their or their ancestors’ conversion to Christianity. Ethiopian-Israelis hold a liminal position of belonging and exclusion from the nationhood of Israel. In presenting several testimonies from the Navon Commission and the cultural and political environment surrounding it, Seeman demonstrates “the widespread sense…that conversion to Christianity constitutes a breach of loyalty to the ethnic and national community of Jews” (Seeman 1991, 179). This finding can help us decipher the difficulties faced by Romuald Waszkinel in Torn.

Romuald Waszkinel is a Polish Catholic priest who, 12 years after being ordained, discovered he was actually born to Jewish parents who gave him as an infant to a Polish family so that he could avoid the Holocaust. At 67 years old, he decided he wanted to move to Israel to learn about his heritage and the Jewish faith. He begins at an Ulpan (Hebrew school) in a religious Kibbutz with the request to visit a nearby church on Sunday afternoons, which is denied by the Kibbutz leadership. In seeking to attain citizenship based on his family heritage, the Israeli Immigration Authority determines that he can stay as a monk, which classifies him a temporary resident, because “he isn’t considered a Jew” (Torn, 1:00:56). In order to gain citizenship, he would have to renounce Christianity and only practice Judaism. In a conversation with Dr. Michael Ben Admon, a philosopher at the Kibbutz, Waszkinel asks what he has done wrong to be seen as such an outsider, as he did not know of his Jewish heritage when he became a priest, which only came to occur as a direct result of the Holocaust. Admon tells him that “a Jew is whoever was born to a Jewish mother or has undergone Orthodox conversion and hasn’t adopted a different religious faith” (Torn, 1:03:08) and questions “if we make generalizations with this issue, can we still guarantee keeping a Jewish state? Not a state with Jewish people, but a state with Jewish culture and with a certain Jewish tradition. Wouldn’t that put an end to Zionism?” (Torn, 1:02:02). Waszkinel has to make a choice between the religion given to him by birth and the religion he grew up in and committed to in adulthood. He has a very difficult time trying to decide between the two, but in one of his last interviews he concludes “I’m convinced that the God of Israel loves me as I love him. That’s enough to be a Jew and that’s enough for me. Will the authorities consider me a jew? I don’t care. I’m a Jew and no one can take that away from me. I got it from my mother and father, through their death” (Torn, 1:04:52). In the end, Waszkinel decides that he cannot define his religious identity using the terms given to him by bureaucracy, but rather determine it for himself. At the heart of Waszkinel’s conflict is a collision of faith, race, and nationhood. Though he can claim the race of Israel because of his birth, his nationhood is denied because of his faith.

Both the story of Waszkinel’s journey and Seeman’s study into the state of Ethiopian-Israelis surrounding the Blood Affair essentially contain the clash of race and religion in Israel. In the attempt to maintain a certain definition of nationhood, bureaucratic policies are put in place, which end up excluding people who are found to be incompatible. For Waszkinel, it is the religion he dedicated his life to before learning of his Jewish heritage. For Ethiopian-Israelis, they are seen as immigrant outsiders (even those born in Israel) and their blood is therefore found dangerous to the health of Israel. 

Seeman, Don. “One People, One Blood: Public Health, Political Violence and HIV in an Ethiopian-Israeli Setting.” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 23 (1999): 159-195.

Torn. Directed and produced by Ronit Kertsner. Go2Films, 2011. 

7 thoughts on “Annie Chappell — Class 15: Race, Faith and Destiny

  1. Thank you for the post Annie!
    I agree with your statement that both the article and documentary explicate the complex relationship and tensions between race and religion. Although the context of each reading was drastically different, they both pointed to the same conflict that many Jewish people experience. The maintaining nationalism through bureaucratic policies while excluding minorities seems to be a common pattern among a multitude of nations. In Dr. Seeman’s article, the exclusion was played out through public health institutions while the documentary demonstrated exclusion from an “insider” perspective in which Waszkinel was once part of the majority but then is kicked out because of his ethnicity.

  2. Hi Annie,

    I thought your blog stated this week’s issue skillfully and succinctly! Your connection between Professor Seeman’s ethnography and the documentary framed it incredibly well. The statement about how bureaucratic policies can lead to the rejection of those found discordant with a nation stood out. As we read in Professor Seeman’s work, for the Ethiopian-Israelis, exclusionary policies were put in place that led to the discarding of their blood. On a more personal scale, as we saw in the documentary, Romuald Waszkinel’s story fits into this since he dedicated his faith to Catholicism. At first glance, it might be more difficult for one to see the linkages between these two controversies; but again, I think you framed it in a way that makes the issue even more accessible.
    I feel it would be important to delve into further examples, perhaps beyond the borders of Israel, of this issue. It is troubling that a nation founded out of protection from persecution could boast policies such as these, yet it is certainly not a unique occurrence in the world. Our own country has and does possess exclusionary policies based on economic and social groundings. I’d be interested to learn more about these policies and their effects.

  3. Hi Annie,

    I like how your post effectively connects both ethnographic works through the lens of bureaucratic exclusion!
    You bring up the complex intersections of culture, race, and religion we have been discussing all semester, exploring where the Jewish and Israeli identities intersect and where bureaucratic policies attempt to separate them.
    It is interesting to consider the exclusionary policies, deeming Ethiopian blood dangerous and a Christian man not truly Jewish, seem to exclude based on cultural factors under the guise of protection of the nation. While both Ethiopian Jews and Waszkinel meet the criteria of being Jewish through birth or conversion, they are still not considered Israeli due to some otherness factor imposed by the state in order to create a more hegemonic national identity. While we have previously explored the combined cultural and religious facets to being Jewish, especially among Jewish immigrants in the US, the exclusionary factors presented to Ethiopians and Waszkinel in Israel try to separate a Jewish religious identity from a cultural and national identity. A similar illustration of the clash between race and culture was seen in the US during Segregation, where being Black was an otherness factor that some argued created a division in culture from mainstream American culture on the basis of race, even though many Black Americans and White Americans practiced similar forms of Christianity.
    Segregation is now seen as a despicable part of American history, however some of these similar policies seem to still exist in Israel today. I wonder if there are other contemporary examples of these kinds of exclusionary bureaucratic policies and how they are defended in practice.

  4. Hello Annie,

    Great blog post! You tie the movie and readings together nicely in a very easily understandable way.

    While I agree with many of the points you make, I think your penultimate paragraph’s final sentence deserves some clarification. You write, “Though he can claim the race of Israel because of his birth, his nationhood is denied because of his faith.” about Waszkinel’s failure to gain Israeli citizenship. While the conclusion is the same, I think you’ve missed an important distinction. Waszkinel was not denied citizenship based on his religion; he was just not granted citizenship under the right of return for Jews due to his continued practice of another religion. His being a practicing Christian did not preclude his citizenship in Israel; therefore, I think it is misleading to categorize his rejection under the right of return as “nationhood [being] denied because of his faith.” As a practicing Christian, Waszkinel had other routes to gain Israeli citizenship, namely naturalization and residence. To gain citizenship, he would have to “renounce prior nationality,” the same way if he sought to gain citizenship under the right of return as a Jew, he would have to stop practicing Christianity.

    Although somewhat irrelevant to this module’s subject matter, the distinction is necessary to portray his situation within an accurate political and bureaucratic context.

  5. Hi Annie!

    Great work comparing two ethnographic pieces relating to race and religion. I think you did a fantastic job of pulling out the most essential information from both works and creating a holistic understanding that can be concluded from both. I agree that the Blood Affair was a critical event that led to the demonstrations by the Ethiopian-Israelis. The hostility, rage and feeling of betrayal felt by the Ethiopian-Israelis emphasizes their longing to be accepted for their race and religion. Their fight to demonstrate the Ethiopian passivity was built from discrimination, poor treatment, lack of good living standards and ultimately the blood affair. The blood affair personally made me feel sympathetic for the Ethiopian-Isrealis. They want to feel a part of the country and religion and are secretly being outcasted without even realizing it. Blood is something that ties and unites humans together. For blood to be rejected, this is symbolically the breaking of a tie between people or unacceptance. One part of your blog that stood out to me was the last paragraph as you summed up that both Waszkinel’s journey and Seeman’s study are highlighting the clash of race and religion in Israel. I completely agree with you and am glad you talked about the overarching features of these two works which are very contributive to understanding how race and religion could affect Jewish and Israeli identities where bureaucratic policies are working against them.

  6. Hi Annie!
    Great post – you seem to have a very good grasp on the complex issues presented in these materials. I feel the issue at the heart of the paper and documentary is what it means to belong to a cultural group – who gets to decide who is included and who is not? On what basis are lines drawn between the inner group vs. the outside world? Dr. Seeman’s paper discusses both the cultural and political context of Blood Affair, and how the Israel-Ethiopian conflict was not occurring in a vacuum, but there was a political context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Furthermore, the paper demonstrates how culture permeates into all aspects of society, even healthcare. This situation of Ethiopian immigrants show how public health and a nationalist agenda interact and inform one another. Another complex relationship between religion and culture is seen in “Torn”. When Romuald Waszkinel learned of his Jewish identity, his whole world was turned upside-down – he struggled to figure out his place in the world. He eventually realizes that he could never renounce his Jewish identity. In spite of the pain he has experienced upon learning of his two identities and all the difficulties involved in making a new life in Israel, he was still able to establish a feeling of a home in Jerusalem. It would be interesting to consider if such exclusionary policies exist towards certain religious or cultural groups in our own country, and how these groups reconcile with these challenges.

  7. Hi Annie,
    Your blog post is insightful and clear. You articulated the connection between Dr. Seeman’s work and the documentary very well.

    I completely agree that conflicting identities are challenging to figure out on their own, but are more challenging when those identities can serve a bureaucratic purpose. The struggle to find a place in Israel is prevalent in both cases. We see it here particularly with the issue of granting Christians with Jewish linneage citizenship and just generally being different from the wider population. I think the struggle for citizenship One difference I noticed that I think is really important in differentiating the two situations is that the Blood Affair affected a large group of people and is the consequence of a larger systemic issueThe racism of the Blood Affair is far different from the struggle between two identities in Torn. The story of Yaacov in Torn is incredibly rare. Several people in the documentary talked about how it was a unique case. Yaacov was one of the few, if not only people with his background. Although there are important similarities in both cases about the citizenship of Israel and what defines a Jew, it is important to note these differences because they highlight different issues with the government and state.

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