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A Story About HIV in Israel That Wasn't Quite True Went Viral — Why?

Yaakov Litzman
Yaakov Litzman

A salacious tale about Israeli regulations around "HIV infected bodies" prompted outrage and a media firestorm; but a closer look reveals a different story. 

For those who remember the government’s draconian early responses to the AIDS epidemic — like the doctors who refused to treat AIDS patients, or the funeral homes that refused to provide services to those who died from AIDS related conditions — or those who just saw those dark days depicted in movies like The Normal Heart; a widely-circulated news item last month cut to the bone.

"HIV infected bodies are being segregated and covered in concrete by health officials," blared the headline on the British LGBT site Pink News, reporting on a law in Israel that dictated the bodies of those with HIV who passed away should be treated the same as those who died from other infectious diseases like Ebola. According to the report, official regulations of the Israeli Ministry of Health to Chevra Kadisha— the department that ensures the dead are prepared for burial according to Jewish tradition — require that the bodies of Israelis who are HIV-positive (or had one of the other communicable diseases on the list) be placed in plastic bags labeled with their disease, then encased in concrete and buried at least ten meters from any other tomb.

Citing a story in Israel's Hebrew and English daily paper HaYom, Pink News further described bodies of those with HIV being put into separate ambulances and treated as bio hazards rather than with the dignity and respect afforded most Jewish dead. It's hard not to be shocked by this report, when this kind of reaction seems out-of-date, a throwback to the early 80s when men were first dying of “gay cancer.” 

Thanks to some high profile disagreements between Israel and the U.S. in the waning weeks of the Obama administration, the Jewish country has been in the spotlight, and Pink’s story got more pickup than it might have otherwise, eventually getting covered on NewNowNext, Gay News Europe, and many other outlets.

Pink News spoke to "a medical expert " who said the segregation of corpses could be appropriate for bodies with a disease like Ebola, where the body is at its most infectious state near death. However, there's never been a documented case of HIV transmission through handling the bodies of people who had HIV. 

While it might be difficult for those in secular countries like America to understand, Israel is a religious state, where traditional religious ceremonies — like those around burials — are hugely revered and culturally important. Customs prescribed by Jewish faith, like how to care for a body after death or the observance of a week-long mourning period are embedded in national life. Standards for how bodies are dressed, wrapped, and entombed are designed to have an equalizing effect so as not to reflect a person’s wealth (or lack thereof) in death.

So — despite the global stigma around HIV — a story about an official regulation designed to treat certain people as undeserving such customary treatment should have struck a nerve within Israel, not just in the international gay community. Yet, while this story was repeated on numerous gay news outlets and blogs; and shared on social networking sites, each instance referenced the same original source; the only Israel publication to carry the story, HaYom. Meanwhile,H’aaretz, Israel’s paper of record, made no mention of this new regulation that would treat people with HIV so poorly. And HaYom, the source first cited by Pink News, is considered by many Israelis to be a right leaning tabloid not unlike The New York Post. What was going on? Did Israel's gay community not find the story as offensive as communities around the world did?

Then, Pink News published an update. Israel’s Department of Health (led by Yaakov Litzman (above, who Pink News says, "has previously caused controversy with comments on the LGBT community"), had reportedly announced it would axe almost all previously reported guidelines, thanks to Pink’s investigation and the subsequent public outrage. That seemed a little odd, since the original report noted, "The Israeli Ministry of Health has denied the guidelines being their official policy. They say the suggestions were just part of draft proposals and were absolutely not meant to be issued to any organizations." Can you rescind an order you never gave?

Reportedly with the tacit approval of the Israel AIDS Task Force, the new guidelines were prompted by a recent court case. In 2016, the family of an 18-year-old woman who died of AIDS-related complications won a lawsuit after a rabbi denied their daughter the traditional burial because of her HIV-positive status. A court sided with the family and awarded them 30,000 shekel (about $7,750). After deeper consideration, it now seems that the original report of a “new law” was based on this one case, and not a new national standard. 

How could so many sites have gotten this story so wrong? Is it a simple case of lazy reporting, or overtaxed journalists who have no time to examine the stories they aggregate and share? Or is there something more complex and nefarious about how this particular story went viral?

I decided to find out. First I contacted Aaron Scheer, who grew up in my neighborhood before becoming a decorated veteran of the United States Air Force. Scheer  describes himself as a, “rhythm-less, cisgender, 40-something white guy from upstate New York who lives in Tel Aviv.” He's also the founder and editor-in-chief of the Daily Freier, a wildly popular humor and satire site. Scheer says neither he nor his friends had heard about the alleged rule regarding the bodies of those with HIV.

“This is a country of contradictions," Scheer says about Israel. "A frustrating country that I chose to live in and take citizenship in.” Scheer says Israel is the kind of place that calls itself a “Start-up Nation” of high tech while its bureaucracies still ask you to fax documents. “And as a Middle Eastern country, everyone, bureaucrats included, interprets rules as they see fit. This can be seen in driving, not waiting on line, high taxation and high tax avoidance, et cetera. So it’s a pretty great country that needs to get better. And it’s making progress and should make more. In a lot of areas.” But, he says, it's not as backward as some media outlets seem to want you to believe. He's concerned that the story wasn't "picked up by media here: except by HaYom,” which makes him question its veracity.

Even how people in the U.S. think of Israel is a study in contradictions: you have those who imagine the nation as just like New York, populated by Jews of European-descent, and essentially just like us. Then there are those who see Israel as backwards, overly conservative, primarily because there's no separation of church and state. There are those who dislike the way Israel deals with Palestinians, and those that believe every anti-Semitic stereotype. Could this story be feeding into some of the anti-Israel sentiment?

I was told by another friend in Isarel that I should speak to  Gal Uchovsky. “Gal,” he said, “knows everyone in the gay community and in general is very connected. He'll be able to help, and he also writes a column in Israel's number one news site Mako.”

As I was speaking with people in or familiar with Israel, the story continued to circulate; even though as early as the same day the story broke, reputable sites like Towleroad, had done some investigating and announced, “The Israeli AIDS Task Force said that the medical information is 'completely unfounded' and 'causing an intensification of the offensive against the already severe stigmatization and AIDS patients as the disease may [not] pass into the air.'”

Towelroad quoted Israeli AIDS Task Force chair Dr. Yuval Livnat addressing the Ministry of Health with concerns raised by the alleged regulations, "It is insulting and incorrect to talk about AIDS as a ‘terrible disease’. There is no medical justification that ambulance drivers and stretcher bearers should be separated, because there is no risk of contagion. Guidelines have caused the resulting hysteria, probably, and unfortunately, indicate the stigma that surrounds the disease without medical justification." In reply, The Ministry of Health reiterated that the guidelines were a draft version that had inadvertently gotten out.

Yet outlets continued to report that Israel's official policy is to treat HIV-positive people's bodies like hazardous material.

Gal Uchovsky was the producer of the super sexy and award-winning Israeli film, Yossi and Jaggerand a huge media and news personality in Tel-Aviv. “This is another version of the untrue news era," Uchovsky tells me. "It's a no story. Nobody buries HIV patients in clay here. Even the Pink News original story stated that it was part of an old rule to bury contagious corpses in some way.”

“If it ever happened,” he says, “know that it happened maybe once as an initiative by a local rabbi in charge of the burial and that it was shut down by gay and HIV Israeli activists the moment anyone heard about it.”

Uchovsky says it is true that there is a big struggle inside Israel between the liberal secular population  and the ultra orthodox. But, he says, the LGBTQ community has been winning most of the recent battles. He believes that would especially prove true if, “someone tried to do something crazy as bury HIV infected corpses in concrete.”

Ultimately, he says, “I think the way this was circulated in the world gay press was part of an eager attempt of some people to expose some big lie about LGBTQ life in Israel." Uchovsky argues that LGBTQ life in Israel is quite good and prosperous. But what the country is known for in worldwide media outlets, is its occupation of the West Bank and treatment of Palestinians. "Israel is the only country in the world that has this diversion," Uchovsky says. "In all the other countries there is a match between general freedom rights and civil freedom and gay rights. Israel is the only country where at the same time LGBTQ people have great lives while a part of the population, the Palestinians suffer.” He says he can understand the contradictory feelings and impulses this engenders.

“This is not a good thing. And fighting for peace and the end of occupation is the ultimate goal. I strongly believe in the two state solution. But it's a complicated situation. And it will take time.”

Uchovsky argues that painting the perception that gay rights are not as progressive in Israel as people might think, or that they are just  a cover for a draconian religious state, “is not a good way to attack Israel. We don't white wash. We really have very good life here. Let's all fight together for peace but please, not with lies about gay life or people with HIV in Israel.”


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Ryan is the Digital Director of The Advocate Channel, and a graduate of NYU Tisch's Department of Dramatic Writing. She is also a member of GALECA, the LGBTQ+ society of entertainment critics. While her specialties are television writing and comedy, Ryan is a young member of the LGBTQ+ community passionate about politics and advocating for all.

Ryan is the Digital Director of The Advocate Channel, and a graduate of NYU Tisch's Department of Dramatic Writing. She is also a member of GALECA, the LGBTQ+ society of entertainment critics. While her specialties are television writing and comedy, Ryan is a young member of the LGBTQ+ community passionate about politics and advocating for all.