Israel should welcome the Jews of Uganda with open arms

Ugandan Jews carrying Torah scrolls (Courtesy of Be’chol Lashon via JTA)
Ugandan Jews carrying Torah scrolls (Courtesy of Be’chol Lashon via JTA)

For a lot of Jews, there is something very comforting about Israel’s Right of Return law. The knowledge that we have a safe haven where we can openly practice our religion without threat is something that we have yearned after for generations. Even those who aren’t looking to make aliyah feel a connection with the Jewish state, and value its existence.

In recent years, however, the state has been rather more partisan about the type of Jews qualified to enter the country under this law. Recently, a Ugandan Jew was denied citizenship of Israel on the grounds that, in the eyes of the Israeli Interior Ministry, he is not deemed halachically Jewish. Yosef Kibita has been living in Israel for over a year, working on Kibbutz Ketura near Eilat. His application to make aliyah was rejected by the Ministry of the Interior and Yosef has been ordered to leave Israel by June 14 (that’s tomorrow) or he will be deported.

Last year, we went to Israel on a gap year program with our youth movement, Noam Masorti Youth. Yosef and four other Ugandan Jews were there at the same time, as part of a pilot program run by Marom, the organization for young Masorti adults. We worked side by side with the group on kibbutz, and despite the large age gap and cultural chasm between us, the two groups became friends. We taught each other about aspects of our own religious culture, and when we all went home to start university or jobs, Yosef stayed in Israel, and made Ketura his home. Like many Jews before him, Yosef fell in love with the land of Israel, and wanted to actualize that connection through aliyah.

However, the personal feelings that arise in this case are not what make it so difficult and reprehensible. For years, the Israeli religious authorities have rigidly decided what is perceived as “properly” Jewish in the State of Israel, from their controls over marriage to the repression of women at religious sites. Yosef comes from a Masorti Jewish community of 2,000 people, with a 100-year history of practicing Judaism. They are recognized by the Jewish Agency as a legitimate community, yet an observant minority have set a certain barometer of what it means to be Jewish — and Yosef and his community do not fit in.

The division of the Kotel is physical proof of how minority Jewish branches are being marginalized: the egalitarian section of the Wall is reduced to a hidden platform that can only host about 30 or so people, and doesn’t actually touch the Kotel itself. It almost feels as if the Orthodox movement in Israel has adopted an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to the other Jewish communities that do not quite satisfy their standards.

The technicalities may be complex — but the message is clear. Minority groups within Judaism won’t be accepted in Israel and the “true” and practicing Jews are not those who come from diverse backgrounds. Given Israel’s existing policies towards African refugees, Yosef’s case has undeniably raised allegations of racism. Israel’s attitude towards asylum seekers from Africa is loathsome, yet Yosef’s case should not be confused with others who come seeking asylum for Israel’s rich economy and relative lack of poverty. Yosef is a practicing Jew who wants to live in Israel, and to have the only Jewish state in the world turn their back on him is devastating. On Facebook, Yosef’s friend and fellow Maromnik, Sarah Nabaggala says people ask her how she can love Israel, “when it obviously hates you this much?” Often it is the people that she meets within the country that manage to give her strength, she says, but recently she has been asking herself, “How do you handle a one way love?”

The love should never have to be unrequited. We strongly believe that Israel was created to be a safe haven for all Jews, not just those who fit a certain criteria decided by an Orthodox minority. Jews like us, who enjoy the Right of Return to the Jewish state, cannot stand back whilst fellow Jews are refused this right. Jews are not monolithic — we are diverse and contrasting, and it is time that the State of Israel recognized this.

This post was co-authored by Jennifer Cohen, a student of English at the University of Birmingham. She is an active member of Noam Masorti Youth and last year took part in their gap year program in Israel.

About the Author
Noah Libson is studying English at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is an active member of Noam Masorti Youth, and last year took part in their gap year program in Israel. He is the treasurer of Goldsmiths Jewish Community, and sits on the Board of Deputies of British Jews as the under 35 representative for Yachad.
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