Israeli attempt to stop AIDS at border provokes outcry over national tenet

November 11, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- An Israeli decision to bar entry to some Jewish immigrants and foreign workers who have the AIDS virus has provoked angry protests from those who feel the policy violates a fundamental tenet of the Jewish state.

The new rules announced this week would require AIDS testing of some groups of Jews and all non-Jewish foreigners planning to stay more than three months.

The move has aroused protests from those who feel it betrays the founding of the state as a haven for all Jews, and from others who feel it reflects a head-in-the-sand approach to AIDS that will be discriminatory and ineffective.

"This gives the illusion AIDS can be stopped at the border. It can't," said Joshua Schoffman, legal director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

"It's an anti-humane, anti-Zionist scandal," complained conservative minister Ephraim Gur.

Relatively few countries try to close their borders to persons with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The United States is among them -- along with regimes such as Syria, Iraq, Libya and Cuba -- and the U.S. policy caused the cancellation of a worldwide conference on AIDS in Boston this year.

The incidence of HIV infection in Israel is low, although the numbers are in sharp dispute. Israeli officials who proposed the rules contend the threat is from outsiders bringing the virus into the country.

"This is intended to protect the general public," Moshe Mashiah, director general of the ministry of health, said on Israel Radio. "One of the methods of maintaining the present low rate of AIDS [virus] carriers in Israel is to prevent those carrying the virus from entering the country and becoming a source of infection for Israeli citizens."

But others say the border rules are so full of loopholes they could not possibly work.

No proof it works

"In the modern world, it's practically impossible to track every person who comes in to see what virus they are carrying around, unless you make your country a prison camp," said Prof. Ze'ev Handzel, a AIDS researcher and immunologist.

"It's been tried in a few countries, and there isn't a shred of scientific evidence that such an approach works," he said.

The rules would apply only to people who stay here more than three months, the duration of a normal tourist visa. It would apply to approximately 6,000 foreign workers in Israel, and to many others who routinely extend their tourist visa to stay longer.

Jewish immigrants also would be tested, although the large group of immigrants from the Soviet Union would be excluded because of the presumed low incidence of AIDS there. Immigrants from Ethiopia also would be excluded, because they are fleeing a dangerous situation.

Most of those tested, then, would be immigrants, students or workers from the West or countries, such as the Philippines, which sends laborers to Israel.

Tests would not be required of tourists who come for a shorter period, or of Israelis who travel abroad and return. The tests would cover only a fraction of the estimated 1.5 million border entries each year.

"What about all the other people? What about the 400,000 Israelis who travel abroad every year? If we are going to start testing for AIDS, we ought to start with our own people," said Inon Schenker, head of the Jerusalem AIDS Project and author of a study of AIDS in Israel.

"The point is, you can't hermetically seal the border," he said."

The border rules are supposed to go into effect Jan. 1, but immigrants to Israel already are being asked to provide proof of an AIDS-inclusive medical test, according to officials at the Ministry of Interior.

Officials may reconsider

This year, two "AIDS carriers" were refused entry to the country, according to a statement from the ministry.

After the regulations were disclosed last weekend, the outcry prompted some officials to retreat on the issue.

Health Minister Haim Ramon said in an interview yesterday he plans to "check and consider" his ministry's approval of the rules, which he said came before the Labor government took power in June.

The proposed regulations have drawn criticism from both liberals and conservatives who see it as a violation of Israel's "law of return."

That law, passed a year after Israel was created, guarantees Jews from around the world can immigrate here and gain automatic citizenship.

Exceptions added later, permitting refusal to persons with criminal backgrounds or mental illness, have been used rarely; the 1971 immigration denial to American gangster Meyer Lansky was one instance.

"If this is the land that absorbs Jews from all over the world, we should take the sick and the well," said Mr. Schenker.

Critics also dispute the contention the AIDS virus is spread primarily by people coming from outside Israel. They say the government is not doing enough to stop the spread of the virus among Israelis already here.

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