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. https://www-filmplatform-net.proxy.library.emory.edu/product/torn/.