A New Kind Of Blood Libel

Benny Mekonen came to israel from his home village in Ethiopia as a hopeful 6-year-old. But 24 years in the land of milk and honey have soured his dreams. Last week Mekonen was one of 10,000 Ethiopian immigrants who converged on the prime minister's of-flee to protest the latest insult: the disclosure that Israel's blood bank, fearful of spreading AIDS, had a secret policy of destroying blood donated by Ethiopian-Israelis. Demonstrators pelted police with rocks and bottles--some filled with fake blood. Police retaliated with tear gas, stun grenades, water cannons and rubber bullets. "You have to be violent in order to be heard here," says Mekonen, a former Israeli Army officer. "It's too bad, but they don't understand any other language."

Another sure way to seize attention in Israel is to level accusations of racism. And that's exactly what the Ethiopian protest amounted to. The list of grievances by the Ethiopians, many of whom came to Israel in two dramatic airlifts in 1984 and 1991, is a long one. They complain of weak education, poor housing; a disturbing number of suicides in the army and discrimination by the Orthodox rabbinate that makes them feel like second-class Jews. They fume at being called kushia local epithet that translates, roughly, as "darky."

The riot startled many Israelis. Prime Minister Shimon Peres apologized to the Ethiopians, calling the blood policy "irresponsible, stupid and woeful," and set up a high-level commission to investigate their complaints. Commentators and op-ed pages anguished about the country's divisions, and a new poll showed that 79 percent of Israelis believe that Ethiopian immigrants face discrimination. Other Israelis, however, were less sympathetic. They said, in essence: welcome to the club.

It's true that many of the problems faced by Ethiopians are similar to those endured by other immigrant groups. Jews from Arab countries still recall how they were "sanitized" with DDT on arrival shortly after the formation of the state in 1948. Even Holocaust survivors were ill-treated: some native-born Israelis called them "soap," a reference to Nazi outrages on Jewish corpses. Nowadays Russian immigrants complain of being stereotyped as drunkards, prostitutes and gangsters.

Yemenite Jews have perhaps the most persistent and deep grievance: they're still fighting to determine the fate of hundreds of their children who went missing in transit camps in the 1950s. Activists believe the children were stolen and given to Jews of European descent. Some claim that kids were shipped to America and sold to Jewish families there. Two investigations in the 1960s and 1980s failed to dispel the accusations. Last year -- after a shoot-out that left one protester dead -- the government set up a commission to study the country's most enduring mystery.

The 56,000 Ethiopian immigrants face a particularly hard time blending into Israeli society. "They came to Israel with almost Messianic expectations of no longer being a minority," says Micha Odenheimer, who heads the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, an advocacy group. "All of a sudden, they find themselves in a harsh, modern society, having a different skin color and different traditions than everyone else, feeling frustrated and powerless." Also, despite well-intentioned and often generous government programs to help them, many Ethiopian immigrants feel trapped by the bureaucracy.

The covert blood-dumping was an extreme case of misplaced paternalism: officials justified the secrecy by claiming they didn't want to "stigmatize" the Ethiopians by making the issue public. Officials say that Ethiopian immigrants are 50 times more likely to carry the AIDS virus than are other Israelis, but have failed to produce studies to back up the claim. "What this issue really is about is a lack of any Sort of faith in what the Ethiopians are told by Israeli officials," says Steve Kaplan, a Hebrew University historian who specializes in Ethiopian Jewry. "And once you have a situation where nobody believes what they're being told, you're in a real mess." Israelis have a special slang term for mess: balagan. It's hardly surprising that it's one of the first words that new immigrants learn-no matter where they come from. .