African asylum seekers wait in food distribution line in Tel Aviv, June 2012. (Photo: Baz Ratner/ Reuters)
Two weeks ago Israel’s Health Department announced that the government will take over a program to segregate and medically test African migrants. Although the policy is not yet in effect, it was piloted by a Tel Aviv hospital director who gave orders to lock asylum seekers in separate rooms and force them to undergo blood and x-ray exams. Under state purview, the policy will be reshaped to skirt charges of racial discrimination: hospital staff will isolate those thought to be refugees on the basis of citizenship status, not skin color, Still the program will only affect African migrants.
The new regulations call to separate those without temporary permits from the normal hospital waiting room and screen the migrants for tuberculosis, measles and chickenpox. Hospitals must limit the segregation of refugees to a period of 24 hours, or until the results of their tests. Haaretz calls this a “softening” of anti-migrant measures, following a row before the new policy when patients were explicitly denied medical care based on race. From a report about a Ghanaian resident of Israel, Isaac Asiedeu ,who was locked in a locker room with his sick infant:
When they entered the hospital, after the baby’s details were recorded, a nurse wearing a face mask brought them face masks to wear, and took the four of them to an isolated room to await a doctor.
‘I told her that we had no serious illnesses in the family, and we don’t have HIV or hepatitis, but the nurse said that by law we had to be isolated.’ She then locked the door and left them inside.
After an hour two doctors came to examine the baby, ‘covered in plastic, even their eyes were hard to make out, as if he had some kind of deadly bacteria like Ebola,’ Asiedeu said. They took blood from the baby and left the room, leaving the door unlocked.
After hours had passed and no one came back with blood test results, Asiedeu went to the nurses station and discovered the results had come back long before. ‘The nurse refused to give me the results and ordered me back to the room. I said I wanted to know what my son had, and she threatened to call security.’
‘At that point I lost it and said this was racist,’ Asiedeu said.
The procedures followed orders from the Director of Ichilov Hospital, Gabi Barbash, to kick out or section off African-looking hospital goers under the pretext of preventing the spread of disease. Barbash argues peoples originating from Africa carry infections that threaten the Israeli population, including the hospital staff.
[W]e are all aware of the new reality forced upon us, due to the massive presence of the illegal migrant worker community in south Tel Aviv. This community numbers close to 100,000 refugees from Africa and lives in poverty, which increases the difficult health problems with which they arrive from their home countries and from their journey.
The shift from Barbash’s race-based policy to an expanded “country-wide procedure,” echoes racist health rhetoric during the 1940s and 1950s, when 100,000 Mizrahi children were exposed to harmful radiation under a plan to treat a relatively benign ailment: ringworm. Now known as the “ringworm children,” Jews of Arab descent under the age of 15 were bussed off to what they were told was a “summer camp,” where the government shaved their heads and administered toxic experiments to their scalps. Then, a week later the children were returned to their parents, traumatized and bald.
In other cases, upon arrival to Israel, youth were irradiated for ringworm in the state’s largest absorption center, Sha’ar Ha’aliya. And for Jews emigrating from Morocco, a transit center was opened in Southern France where masses of children were doused in poison. At the time, the risks of irradiation were not fully known, but today, cancer and sterilization rates in that population are staggeringly high.
Clip from The Ringworm Children (2007) by David Belhassen and Asher Hemias.
Israeli professor Dr. Rhona Seidelman is the foremost scholar on Israel’s hidden history of medical experiments and teaches a class on the subject at the University of Illinois. While researching in 2009, she found statements about the diseases of Mizrahi children made in 1955 that were being echoed in the burgeoning discourse of diseased African children:
I was busy doing research on the history of ringworm treatment at the Sha’ar Ha’aliya immigrant transit camp near Haifa. I found this interesting quote:
‘The Yishuv [pre-state Jewish community] is silent with its indifference … and doesn’t even grasp the extent of the danger facing not only children and their households, but the entire public …. Today ringworm is not only in the ma’abarot [refugee camps] … although it is found there in abundance. The truth is that today ringworm appears in every city and settlement. Metropolitan Tel Aviv is in fact surrounded by a belt of ringworm that is closing in …. The majority of the ill were new immigrants from Eastern countries; the overwhelming majority are from among the residents of the ma’abarot. But children of Ashkenazi ethnicity have already been seen [with the disease].’
At the time, Israeli minister of interior Eli Yishai had catapulted anti-migrant racism by making his first public remarks equating refugees to bacterial mules:
If hundreds of thousands of migrant workers come here now, they will bring with them a profusion of diseases: hepatitis, measles, tuberculosis, AIDS and drug [addiction].
Yishai’s statements were made in the context of a government discussion regarding the impending deportations of asylum seekers. Yet it was Dr. Seidelman’s lone voice that pointed to the larger overhaul of rights that naturally accompanies racism “cloaked in the authoritative language of health and medicine.” In Haaretz in 2009 Dr. Seidelman wrote:
Yishai’s current use of this rhetoric is both ironic and alarming. The irony is that a person who is proud and vocal about his ‘Mizrahi’ heritage would resort to the same discriminatory, inflammatory rhetoric that was so painfully used against ‘Mizrahim’ in the past, including–in all likelihood–Yishai’s own family.
The alarm is that, coming from the interior minister, this rhetoric is no longer just inflammatory, but also dangerous; it instills irrational fear in the minds of the public and encourages further discrimination against an already socially marginalized group.
The interior minister is not ringing the alarm alone. The health department, doctors, and nurses are all infusing migrant discrimination as a day-to-day fact of life in Israel. Think of the housing departments that do not grant permits for Palestinians to build new villages. Or, military judges who do not release hunger-striking administrative detainees. And the state gets away with this trampling of rights by operating its legal framework through tiers of citizenship, which is legal, rather than racist discrimination as such, which is not. In forming the hospital segregation policy around persons “without temporary permits,” thereby excluding tourists (axing Jewish American visitors from the pull), Israel has created a new category ripe for continued oppression without any legal recourse.
In practical terms, once the policy officially starts it could mean that the African family that was firebombed last week would not be able to receive emergency care in the burn unit. The pregnant woman with scorched legs and smoke inhalation would have had to wait for almost a day in some cornered off make-shift treatment room while doctors wasted time running her medical tests, ensuring she would not spread chickenpox. In the meantime, she might have complications, or if her injuries were worse, she might even die. But it would not be called negligence, or malpractice– just policy.