A case that will make history — the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda

The Abayudaya are Ugandan Jews. They have practiced Judaism for 100 years. They began to practice normative Judaism in the 1930s, influenced by a European Jew who taught them about Jewish practices as they were observed by Jews around the world. As the Abayudaya became more aware of the world Jewish community, they wanted to fully legitimize their membership in it. They realized that they had never formally converted to Judaism, and so they decided to do so under the auspices of recognized denominations. From 2002 until 2016, 1,600 Abayudaya converted under the aegis of the Conservative movement and 400 converted with an Orthodox bet din (religious court) supervised by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.

The Abayudaya have synagogues and Jewish schools. The Orthodox community recently built a mikveh. The entire community punctiliously observes the rites of Judaism according to their denominations’ understanding of how to practice those rites. They have a Zionist federation. You might imagine that world Jewry would be happy to have another 2,000 dedicated and practicing Jews added to its number, but most of world Jewry likely would be surprised that those Jews would be found in Uganda. But that’s where they are.

Too good to be true

In 2016, the Jewish Agency, the organization that processes aliyah applications made outside Israel and functions as the voice of the diaspora to Israel, recognized the Abayudayas’ conversion. Accordingly, their right to make aliyah and to receive student and visitors’ visas for study or trips to Israel should have been guaranteed. The Abayudaya were overjoyed. While most preferred to stay in Uganda, many wanted to be able to go to Israel on Taglit-Birthright trips, to study Torah in either Conservative or Orthodox institutions there, or to visit Israel to be inspired as Jews.

Thinking that the way was clear for them to take advantage of their recognition as a Jewish community, members of the community, mostly young adults, started to apply for visas that would allow them to begin study programs in Israel. When they did, Israel’s Ministry of the Interior’s denied them those visas. The reason the ministry gave was that their conversions were not valid, and therefore they were not Jews. Since many of the programs were directed only to Jewish participants, the ministry’s decision that the Abayudaya, even those who converted under Orthodox auspices, were gentiles was its reason for not granting them permission to come to Israel for extended periods of time.

The ministry’s decision flew in the face of the Law of Return. Under the provisions of the Law, people converted outside Israel by any recognized Jewish denomination are entitled to make aliyah and become citizens automatically, or to receive visas for Jewish study programs or visits to Israel. Its decision also undercut a written agreement between the ministry and the Jewish Agency that any community recognized as Jewish by the Agency would be recognized by the Ministry as well.

Nevertheless, the Abayudaya remained in love with Israel, and hoped that Israel’s recognition of them would come at some point. They wanted that recognition in order to be considered full, authentic Jews by the rest of the world, and they felt that only Israel’s acceptance of them could accomplish that. They yearned to belong.

Yosef Kibita

A young member of the Abayudaya, Yosef Kibita, wanted to deepen his Jewish knowledge. He applied to the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and to the Ministry of the Interior for a visa once he was accepted. His application for the visa was rejected. The Masorti Movement, the Israeli equivalent of the Conservative movement in America, entered the fray, and ultimately Kibita was granted his visa and studied at the Yeshiva for a year. After that year, he went to live and work at Kibbutz Ketura near Eilat. Ketura, which was founded by Young Judea, is in terms of its Jewish practice a Conservative Jewish kibbutz. This was a very comfortable situation for Kibita, who had contemplated aliyah for years. At Ketura, he became convinced that he wanted Israel to be his home.

Accordingly, he submitted an aliyah application. Not only was it rejected, but since his visa had expired, he was told to leave Israel voluntarily or be deported.

Again, the Masorti movement, with support from the Israel Religious Action Center, came to Kabita’s aid. They took the ministry to the Supreme Court in order to prevent Kabita from being expelled from Israel. His expulsion stayed. Kabita and the Masorti movement then asked the court to demand that the ministry explain its rejection of Kabita’s aliyah application. The court ruled in the movement’s favor. The ministry has taken almost four years to come up with a brief explaining its position.

For four years, Kabita has been in limbo.

February 1, 2021: The fateful, tragic day

Kabita’s hearing took place on February 1, 2021. Both the ministry and Kabita brought in the best lawyers they had to argue their positions. Unfortunately, the court decision resolved nothing. The best it could do was to offer Kabita three options:

He could reconvert in an established Jewish community like the United States, and receive full recognition of his conversion under the Law of Return. This would solve his problem — but he feared he would be abandoning his family and community by getting his rights without securing theirs.

Alternatively, he could return to Uganda and reconvert there, thereby attaining a certificate of conversion that was dated post-2009. That year is significant because, in 2016, the Jewish Agency recognized the Abayudaya as a Jewish community with rights to aliyah. Their conversions were recognized retroactively to 2009, but Kibita was converted in 2002 when he was 15. Re-conversion in Uganda most likely would solve no problem, since the Ministry of the Interior does not recognize conversions taking place where there is no born-Jewish established community.

Why will Yosef Kabita’s case make history?

The Israeli Supreme Court could have ruled in one of two ways, each one with historic implications.

If Kibita had won his case, the court would have validated his conversion would have been be validated by the court. This would have become a precedent for all emerging Jewish communities that converted with one or another recognized Jewish denomination, so long as the conversion took place outside Israel. (For the Law of Return, conversions performed inside Israel must be Orthodox.) There are dozens of such communities worldwide, all of which would now be eligible for aliyah, or to join Jewish study programs in Israel, or simply to visit. These programs would deepen Jewish identity or provide education for potential rabbis and teachers for these communities, thereby enhancing their knowledge and practice of Judaism. The benefits world Jewry would have reaped from a demographic increase of committed, practicing, and learned Jews in its midst would have been invaluable. Further, communities of dedicated Jews-by-choice would have felt that their status as full Jews had been validated and that they were unquestionably members of Klal Yisrael. Now, they can only feel rejected by a country they all feel love for.

The court, however, has ruled in favor of the ministry against Kibita. This decision has dire consequences, and not only for Yosef. This ruling shuts the door to aliyah for any Abayudaya forever, as a matter of decided law. It slams shut the gate to aliyah for thousands of Jews-by-choice from emerging Jewish communities who might wish to make Israel their home or even visit there.

Further, the Jewish Agency, the diaspora’s voice to Israel, has for all intents and purposes has had its authority to approve aliyah applications for converts from the United States or abroad greatly undermined. Newly emboldened by the court’s decision, a convert’s aliyah application approved by the Jewish Agency could be set aside on a whim by the Ministry of the Interior.

In Israel the Hebrew name of the Israeli Supreme Court is “The Great Court of Justice.” No justice was done there on February 1.

How the court’s decision affects diaspora Jews

Had the court ruled in Yosef Kibita’s favor, there would have been many positive implications for diaspora Jews. Those loyal to a Jewish denomination would have affirmed that their rabbis and movements are respected and deemed authentic by Israel. For Jews who love Israel but do not define themselves denominationally, a positive decision by the court would have affirmed that Israel is the Jewish nation-state responsible to and for Jews everywhere, a claim it has made throughout its history. Such a decision would have respectfully affirmed the right of the diaspora to define who is a Jew in its own bailiwick, and have that definition accepted in Israel. This would have signaled to diaspora Jews that they are equal members of one family.

Unfortunately, the court has ruled in favor of the ministry and thereby crowned Israel sovereign over defining Jewish identity everywhere, and the diaspora’s Jewish identity has been made dependent on decisions made by the Israeli Ministry of the Interior, whose strings are pulled by the chief rabbinate.

I cannot imagine any diaspora Jews who are loyal to the idea of Jewish peoplehood feeling anything but betrayed. Once the full implications of the Kibita decision sink in, I can’t imagine any thinking diaspora Jew being anything but outraged at being dissed in this fashion. The Kibita case is historical insofar as it brings Israel-diaspora relations to a new low, one that we never imagined we’d reach.

How did we come to this pass?

For more than a decade, the forming of Knesset coalitions has depended on ultra-Orthodox non-Zionist parties, right-wing Orthodox-nationalist Zionist parties, and right-wing parties sympathetic to Orthodoxy being willing to join. Once a coalition is formed, ministry positions are parceled out to those with the greatest interest in a particular ministry’s realm of authority.

For years, a member of the ultra-Orthodox, non-Zionist Sephardic Shas party has been the Minister of the Interior. Presently, the party’s leader, Aryeh Deri, holds the position. Deri is neither politically nor temperamentally disposed to recognizing anything but Orthodox conversions by Orthodox religious courts of which his ultra-Orthodox constituency and fellow travelers approve. Modern Orthodox figures like Rabbi Shlomo Riskin are not sufficiently Orthodox in his eyes to have their conversions accepted.

And it goes without saying that for him, non-Orthodox conversions are automatically invalid.

Theoretically, it is not up to the Ministry of the Interior to determine the validity of a conversion. To do so is to arrogate to the ministry a right it does not have under the Law of Return. But Aryeh Deri, the Minister of the Interior, who served almost two years in jail for bribe-taking and is presently under indictment for tax offenses, obviously is not overly concerned with Israeli law, and certainly not with the Law of Return, when he finds its provisions, not to his liking.

Postscript

It should be noted that the Interior Ministry’s refusal to process aliyah applications and to grant visas has been aimed overwhelmingly at converts of color.

Draw your own conclusions. Is it the toxic intertwining of state and religion that is part and parcel of the Israeli reality that allows the minister to create his ministry’s noxious policies? Is it racism? Or is it both?

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Chernick holds a doctorate in rabbinic literature and semikhah from Yeshiva University, and he is the chair of the executive committee of Ruach Hiddush (Rabbis and Cantors for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel).He served as professor of rabbinic literature at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for forty years.He is an oleh hadash with continuing close ties to the United States. Rabbi Chernck regards himself as "a Jew for all Jews."
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