A basic question I keep asking myself, over and over in my own mind, is “why would the State of Israel fight through its legal system to keep Jews who wish to study in Israel, or to make Aliyah to Israel, out of our country. Spending yet another day in court, listening to the arguments presented by the State again gave me pause to wonder. By now, many of you know the story of the Abayudaya – the Jewish community in Uganda. Practicing as Jews since 1919 – they have long since undergone conversion by Batei Din (Rabbinic Courts) recognized, at least in theory, by the government of Israel.
The community rabbi, Gershom Sizomu, was ordained in 2008 by the Zeigler Rabbinical School of the Masorti/Conservative movement. There are about a dozen synagogues, Jewish primary and high schools, and a Mikveh. The youth are affiliated and active with MAROM – the university and post university group of the Masorti movement. After hard fought struggles with the Interior Ministry and with the Jewish Agency we have succeeded in bringing young people on both Masa and Birthright programs. Today the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization recognize this, and other emerging Jewish communities, and have advocated for their rights under the Law of Return. Both Natan Sharansky and his successor, Yitzhak Herzog have spoken out on their behalf.
There are some 1,500-2,000 members of the Abayudaya community – most in Uganda but some in Kenya as well. To date only a handful have applied to make Aliyah or to study in Israel. The fact that many of the community converted in 2002 should serve as an indication that the conversions were not a fictitious ruse to obtain a “Green Card” to Israel. Nor do the Abayudaya claim a DNA connection to Judaism as do some groups in Africa and elsewhere.
So why are they not free to come to Israel? The State, under Interior Minister Arye Deri of the Zealously Orthodox political party SHAS, has been “studying” the matter for over 8 years. This is a way of saying we do not want these people in our country. A chief official in the Interior Ministry, Amos Arbel, even went so far, in a Knesset hearing on the matter, as to say of one of these Jews who has black skin “He’s a Goy…Do you want half of Africa coming here?’ (see: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israeli-officials-defend-deportation-of-jewish-convert-from-africa-1.5630351).
The law seems clear. In a set of policy criteria drawn up in 2013 the rules defined a “recognized community” as one with basic infrastructure, recognized by one of the major denominations and/or by the Jewish Agency.
There can be no question the community is recognized by the Masorti/Conservative movement. We have trained the community rabbi. Youth participate in our conferences, we have had some members of the community serve as staff at our Ramah camps (as well as some of the Reform summer camps), one woman is now studying for the Rabbinate at HUC, and another young man is studying at the Conservative Yeshiva.
In December 2017 Yehudah Kimani was detained at the Ben Gurion airport and retuned to Africa, despite a visa to enter Israel so he could pursue a deeper course of Jewish study in Jerusalem. His entry visa was signed by the Israeli ambassador to Kenya (we do not have official diplomatic relations with Uganda).
Last June, Yosef Kibita, who had visited Israel on a Masa program applied for Aliyah. The wonderful families at Kibbutz Ketura offered him a home while his application was in process. He was refused Aliyah and ordered to leave the country. Within days the court ordered a stay of his expulsion pending a decision on the question of the recognition of the Abayudaya community as a “recognized community.” Allow me to mention that under decisions issued by the Israeli BAGATZ (The High Court of Justice/Supreme Court) Masorti and Reform conversions must be accepted by the State for purposes of Aliyah under the Law of Return (this decision does not obligate the Chief Rabbinate to accept them as Jews but that is not relevant this this matter).
Today a hearing was finally held in the Supreme Court as to why the State has refused to grant Yosef Kibita his request to make Aliyah. The question is a bit of a hot potato so, as they often do, the court punted. Further hearings on this case, and a case of two Masorti converts from Pucallpa, Peru, have been scheduled for November and December respectively. That is to say, the matter has been kicked down the road a bit further.
The State seeks to claim that when the original conversions took place in 2002 there was not a Jewish community since until the conversions were complete, despite the Jewish schools, Mikveh, a Shochet, a Mohel and synagogues, there were no actual Jews. It is interesting to note that the Interior Ministry did not object to many Orthodox conversions from Latin America, India, and elsewhere where the situations were not so very different (although they did have similar objections in cases involving Conservative/Masorti converts from those areas).
Three years back the court asked the Interior Ministry to draw up a set of criteria to establish the parameters under which converts from so called “emerging communities” would be entitled to make Aliyah. They have made no progress in this regard. Why? As long as they do not produce what the court has requested – they continue to act as they wish. So too with each request for a continuance.
Since Yosef Kibita applied for Aliyah four others from Uganda have done so. All of them have received letters stating that their requests were being examined but they should be prepared to wait several years before a decision would be rendered.
Yet, small steps should be appreciated. Yes, the judges did not grant citizenship to Yosef today (I expect that ultimately they will do so). However, they replaced the court order that barred the Interior Ministry from expelling Yosef with a B1 visa which means he may now legally work in Israel. He may be salaried for his work at Ketura while awaiting a decision.
Yoesef Kibita, Rabbin Aswami, and Shoshana Nimbi, all members of the Abayudaya community studying in Israel also attend shul regularly, put on Teffilin, read from the Torah, and live traditional (egalitarian) Jewish lives. How deep into the sand has our government stuck its head? These are among the very people we want and need to build our Zionist state. Please “Pharaoh” – Let Our Jews Come Home.