Jerusalem: Accusations that Israel deliberately tried to curb birth rates among Ethiopian immigrants have reopened a debate over discrimination against the group highlighting the state`s uneasy relationship with a community that has yet to fully settle into the Israeli mainstream.
Women`s activists and a series of media reports contend that Ethiopian women who immigrated to Israel over the past two decades were coerced into taking a controversial birth control drug without being properly informed of its side effects or being offered alternative contraceptives.
While the allegations have been strongly denied by the government, it remains unclear why so many Ethiopian women were receiving Depo-Provera, a long-acting birth control injection that is rarely prescribed to other Israelis.
The controversy has shined a fresh light on the Ethiopian community and its place in modern Israel. Believed to be descendants of the lost Israelite tribe of Dan, Ethiopian Jews spent millennia isolated from the rest of the Jewish world.
Israel began rescuing groups of Ethiopian Jews from war and famine in clandestine operations in the 1980s, and larger numbers followed in the 1990s.
Today, some 120,000 people of Ethiopian descent live in Israel. Yet two decades after first arriving, Israel`s Ethiopian population continues to struggle.
Many work in low-paying menial jobs as security guards and cleaners, and roughly 41 per cent of Ethiopian families live in poverty.
Depo-Provera has been used under controversial circumstances in the past. Testing and use was limited almost exclusively to women in developing countries and poor women in the United States, leading to charges that the test subjects were coerced or ill-informed.
The accusations in Israel first emerged in 2008, when the Yediot Ahronot newspaper published a report showing a disproportionate number of Ethiopian women were receiving injections of Depo-Provera, which is administered once every three months instead of as a daily pill.
The issue resurfaced in December when an investigative TV report claimed that Ethiopian women were told before they immigrated that raising children in Israel is expensive and that they should use birth control to ease the transition.
The TV report interviewed more than 30 women, some of whom said they feared they wouldn`t be allowed to immigrate if they didn`t take the drug.
The report, broadcast on the state-run educational channel, concluded there was a deliberate plan to keep down Ethiopian birthrates.
The Depo-Provera affair is just the latest clash Israel has had with its Ethiopian community.
Last year, Israel`s rabbis began working to phase out the community`s clergy, whose religious practices are at odds with the rabbinate`s Orthodox Judaism, sparking large protests.
In the late 1990s, it was discovered that Israel`s health services were throwing out Ethiopian-Israelis` blood donations over fears of diseases contracted in Africa.