Forward Thinking

Israel's Blood Donation Rules Are Becoming a National Problem

By Nathan Jeffay

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Yesterday, an Ethiopian-born lawmaker was told at a Knesset blood drive that the state doesn’t want her blood because of her origins. I know how she feels.

There is widespread outrage following the news that Pnina Tamano-Shata, the first Ethiopian born Knesset member, was told not to donate (or that she could donate but the blood probably wouldn’t be used). Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein threw the blood collection stand out of parliament, President Shimon Peres has condemned the decision, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has voiced concern.

The shunning of Tamano-Shata stems from a policy that generated much publicity in the past but long ago fell off the public agenda. Since 1997, the Israeli Ministry of Health has prohibited donations from people who were born or who lived in a country with high HIV incidence.

Israeli rules also make me persona-non-grata at blood donation stands. On my most recent attempted donation, I was in a hospital, killing time as my wife underwent a procedure, thinking that it would be fitting to do a good deed as she was on the receiving end of medical care. But no, I still wasn’t welcome, and given that blood donation is an honored tradition in my family — my father has given many times his body weight — it’s an unhappy feeling.

The reason for my rejection? Remember 1986 and the start of Britain’s “mad cow disease crisis? Well it’s because of that. I’m British, and anyone who lived in Britain for more than six months between 1980 and 1996 still can’t donate blood in Israel because of “mad cow disease.” I get the same kind of response from the blood stand staff as I saw on the video of Tamano-Shata’s attempted donation — an embarrassed statement of the rules with a tacit understanding between us that they are outdated.

The shunning of Tamano-Shata’s blood is more evocative than the shunning of mine, and not only because she has the clout of being a member of Knesset. It’s also due to the fact that there’s an issue of race being implied. This suits everyone — it puts Tamano-Shata, a quiet lawmaker who has failed to make any mark on politics since her election, at the center of the public agenda, and casts political leaders like Edelstein, Peres and Netanyahu as crusaders against racism for responding swiftly. But are they playing it straight?

Just as the risk of any danger from the blood of Ethiopian immigrants is tiny, so is the risk from Brits, most of whom are white. And of course, people of Ethiopian descent who are born in Israel are welcome donors. So the racism theory doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Rather, it would seem to be a case of the Israeli establishment, as it sometimes does, taking a slightly odd approach to a particular issue — blood donation — either due to extreme caution or because it just hasn’t got round to revising its stance.

The story here may not be racism, but it may well be the exploitation of the racism card for political ends.

Tamano-Shata knew well the response she would get — why else was a television camera there filming her attempted donation? But she wasn’t just to propel herself in to the public eye on the trump-card issue of racism but also help her party’s flagging fortunes.

Who sets the policy on blood donation? None other than the Health Ministry. And who runs the Health Ministry? Yael German, a colleague from Tamano-Shata’s own Yesh Atid party.

Sources in the Health Ministry tell me that German has been working to change the policy on blood donation that excludes Ethiopian-born people, Brits and gays, since a month after she entered office. And voila — suddenly the blood policy is back on the agenda with video footage to boot, all courtesy of German’s party colleague.

In the same way that people speculate that a tree falling in a deserted forest doesn’t make a sound, reform to an issue that nobody is talking about doesn’t create any political capital. German was among the first to condemn the Ethiopian lawmaker’s experience calling the blood policy “absurd and unacceptable.” The nation, 48 hours ago indifferent to the issue, is now hungry for her reform.


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