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Pop Star’s Death Stirs Debate in Israel on AIDS

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thousands of inconsolable fans crowded into the cemetery for the funeral last week of Ofra Haza, Israel’s first international pop star, who descended mysteriously and shockingly into sickness and then rapid death at the age of 41. They wept and held aloft pictures showing her alluring dark eyes and familiar warm smile. Radio stations filled the airwaves with her hypnotic songs.

Now, the same radio shows are focusing on a heated debate raging around Haza’s passing and her family’s dogged determination to keep details of her fatal disease from public light.

Quoting unidentified sources, the Haaretz newspaper reported on its front page Monday what had been a widely circulated rumor: that Haza had died of the complications of AIDS. The hospital where she died continued to decline to comment, but few Israelis doubt the report.

Instead, the debate is about the stigma that sectors of this tradition-bound society still attach to the disease, and how efforts to conceal the truth may only have backfired by compounding speculation and ignorance.

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The Haza story also is the latest here to demonstrate the difficulties facing Israeli efforts at media censorship--official and otherwise--in an age of global communication. Courts, the military and bereaved families may seek to limit publication of certain details or facts, but the Internet and cable television will largely thwart such discretion.

If Haza did indeed die of AIDS-related complications, she would be Israel’s first big-time celebrity known to have done so. And big she was, her near-universal popularity reaching all social strata. She sang at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony honoring the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, appeared on the Johnny Carson and “Today” shows, and sang the role of Moses’ mother in the animated film “The Prince of Egypt.”

Always intensely private, she grew up in the slums of Tel Aviv, the daughter of Yemeni immigrants, and rose to fame fighting discrimination and helping to bring the ethnically inspired music of her forefathers into the mainstream.

On the radio talk shows dedicated to the Haza matter Monday, public health advocates lamented that the singer did not confront her disease in a more public way; a valuable educational opportunity was lost, they said. Some described her as a potential Israeli Magic Johnson; others spoke compassionately about the shame that AIDS sufferers in Israel confront and that apparently kept Haza and her family silent.

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“What are we talking about? We are talking about a human disease which in our eyes is just like any other disease, and there’s no need to demonize it,” said Yoel Esteron, deputy editor of Haaretz, who was defending the paper’s decision to publish its report that Haza’s death Wednesday had resulted from AIDS.

“The more the days passed, and the more this conspiracy of secrecy grew to reach monstrous dimensions, the more we thought that we ought to publish. Isn’t it time that the citizens of Israel relate to AIDS as they do to cancer or dysentery?” Esteron said.

Dr. Zvi Bentvich, director of the Kaplan Hospital AIDS Center, said silence only feeds the stigma, and he regretted that Haza’s illness could not be used to raise awareness and diminish widely held fears and superstition. Haaretz reported that some personnel at Sheba Hospital near Tel Aviv, where she died, complained that they had been put at undue risk because they were not informed of Haza’s condition.

“The way the case was handled and perceived by the public was as something you have to run away from like the plague,” Bentvich said. “One doesn’t have to be ashamed of AIDS.”

Many people with AIDS in Israel are ashamed, however, and reluctant to divulge their condition. Hanni Rosenberg, executive director of the Jerusalem AIDS Project, spends much of her time lecturing on AIDS to high school students and Israeli army units, and encounters denial and bigotry. Israeli society, she said, is riven by ethnic and cultural differences and influenced so heavily by conservative religious traditions that there’s not much room for tolerance.

On the other side of the debate--which began on Monday’s morning radio talk shows, continued on the evening TV news broadcasts and even reached the halls of parliament--were those who cautioned that a patient’s right to privacy outweighs the public’s right to know, and who decried thrusting onto Haza a public service role she would not have wanted.

Among those making this argument was Yoram Malka, an official with the Health Ministry, who accused journalists of “crossing a line” with indecent snooping. Several members of the Knesset, or parliament, said they would propose new patient-privacy legislation.

Yet it was inevitable that reports about what killed Haza would become public.

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Haza’s illness was one of several major Israeli stories that had been widely discussed in cyberspace long before being taken up by the mainstream media. News of the rape of a former Miss Universe initially was suppressed by a court gag order, as was the recent indictment of a newspaper publisher on murder conspiracy charges; but both cases could become well known to anyone surfing the Net. When Israeli soldiers are killed in Lebanon, Israeli radio and TV are not allowed to report the deaths until families are notified hours later--even though CNN or the BBC will already have broadcast the news.

The Haza case was somewhat different. When the singer was rushed into the emergency room of Sheba Hospital, her family asked for discretion and privacy, and the media complied. Her organs began to shut down, she slipped into unconsciousness, and within 10 days she was dead.

Although the media had agreed not to reveal details of her condition, that did not mean that people would not know--or speculate. Rumors grow in a vacuum, and some editors Monday were wondering whether discretion had served the greater good.

For all their technological advances and professional evolution, newspapers, radio and television in Israel continue to allow official censorship and to practice self-censorship in ways that would seem prudish or antiquated in the United States. But this will change as the media find themselves scooped by the Internet, said Gabriel Weimann, a mass communications specialist at Haifa University.


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