Israel has an HIV epidemic that affects vulnerable people such as gay men. sex workers, drug users and immigrants. The Haaretz article below is an important intervention about the Israeli response to that country’s HIV epidemic. It is crucial for that country’s newspaper of record to highlight that many Israelis, especially public figures, are not taking HIV seriously. There are also many questions that can be asked about the government’s attitude towards AIDS, including questions about their funding commitments to the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria.
I have one bone of contention regarding the use of language in the article. Haaretz uses a picture of former President Nelson Mandela and Zackie Achmat with a caption that would suggest to the unsuspecting that they were involved in the HIV struggle because it was glamorous. HIV was never a “glamorous” or “fashionable” struggle, but rather a grassroots struggle against former President Mbeki and his Health Ministry’s HIV denialism and state-sponsored pseudo-science. This denialism led to about 2 million people with AIDS dying in South Africa during Mbeki’s rule and at least 1500 people becoming infected every day for almost a decade.
Mandela’s family, like that of almost every family in South Africa, lost many of its members to HIV. Former President Mandela also lost his eldest son to AIDS. Achmat, who lives with HIV, lost two family members and hundred of comrades in the Treatment Action Campaign to HIV/AIDS as they battled government denialism and drug company profiteering. The journalist’s use of word such as “fashionable” and “glamour”, like the use of stigmatising words like “carrier”, is perhaps well intentioned but demeaning. Haaretz should set the record straight.
In the Israel of 2012, models, artists and other public figures who help raise funds for charities do not campaign for AIDS victims, as they do in other countries.
In the Israel of 2012, many of the basic rights of HIV carriers are still being violated. Insurance companies refuse to provide them with executive insurance, nursing care, risk insurance or life insurance. Since Israeli banks won’t approve housing loans unless customers have life insurance, HIV-positive people don’t get mortgages. Dentists often discriminate against them as well.
In the Israel of 2012, models, artists and other public figures who help raise funds for charities do not campaign for AIDS victims, as they do in other countries, or take part in events affiliated with the Israel AIDS Task Force.
Over time, AIDS has become more of a chronic illness than a death sentence. The life expectancy of HIV carriers treated with a cocktail of AIDS drugs is almost the same as that of the rest of the population. In the past few years, many of the estimated 6,000 HIV carriers living in Israel – including 2,400 women and 200 children – have been dating non-carriers. Some such mixed couples get married and have children.In the Israel of 2012, many of the children who carry the virus that causes AIDS are not aware that they do so. The stigma associated with the disease and the fear that their children will be ostracized or embarrassed prompt many parents to refrain from informing their children that they are HIV-positive. The families don’t let outsiders see the names of their medications, and work to keep their frequent medical checkups, blood tests and hospital visits under wraps.
But while patients with other diseases – cancer, say – can tell their family and friends about their suffering and expect to receive empathy and support, the ignorance and preconceived notions so prevalent in Israeli society lead many HIV-positive people to conceal a significant part of their lives.
In September, I wrote an article for this newspaper about romantic relationships in which just one of the partners is HIV-positive, which illustrated the extent to which the lives of carriers have improved. Many of those interviewed for the article were young, impressive people with careers and families. They spoke openly, but refused to have their name or picture published in the newspaper. Their biggest fear of all was, and remains, exposing their identity.
One consequence of that fear is that in Israel, the campaign for greater awareness of AIDS has lacked a recognizable face. But that is slowly changing.
Two executive directors and a chairman of the Israel AIDS Task Force – Patrick Levy, Rami Hassman and Gideon Hirsch – have come out to the media as HIV-positive since 1995. Choreographer and dancer Sahar Azimi did so in November. His latest performance, “Cell in a Human Scale,” is about AIDS.
On December 1, World AIDS Day, an activist in the Israel AIDS Task Force, Alon Madar, announced that he is HIV-positive. The group recently launched a campaign it calls “Breaking the Stigma,” as part of which two other HIV carriers – Barak Gaon and Rami Gershuni – have announced their status.
If in the past, Israeli carriers agreed to be interviewed as part of a fight to live longer, by having the government subsidize treatment for AIDS drugs, now they are increasingly fighting for an improved quality of life and the right to live as the equals of anyone else.
In many Western countries, it has long been fashionable – glamorous, even – to take part in the struggle against AIDS. Celebrities and artists are regularly photographed at campaign events and help raise funds. In September, Israeli model Bar Refaeli, who has never attended an event of the Israel AIDS Task Force, was seen with fashion designer Kenneth Cole at a prestigious AIDS fund-raiser.
It is to be hoped that this trend, long overdue, will soon come to Israel as well.