Ministry: Uganda Jews ineligible for aliya since they converted en masse

The Abayudaya community in Uganda began adopting Jewish religious practices at the beginning of the 20th century.

June 25, 2018 20:00
3 minute read.
Ministry: Uganda Jews ineligible for aliya since they converted en masse

Ugandan Rabbi Harun Kintu Moses conducts a Hebrew language lesson at Hadassah School, a Jewish community institute in Mbale along the slopes of Mt.Elgon some 224km (139Mmiles) east of Uganda's capital Kampala, Uganda, February 10,2005. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The Interior Ministry claimed on Monday that the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda is not eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return because criteria for recognizing non-Orthodox conversions are not relevant to so called “emerging communities.”

In a recent case, Yosef Kibita, a member of the Abayudaya community, sought to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, but was rejected in May by the Interior Ministry, which said his conversion “is not recognized for the purposes of receiving status in Israel.”

During the hearing in the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee on Monday, a legal adviser to the Interior Ministry argued first that the Abayudaya do not meet the ministry’s criteria for recognizing conversions done abroad for the purposes of citizenship under the Law of Return.

The legal adviser, Dasi Tzengen, said the criteria require the community where the conversion is done to be a “recognized, established community of a lengthy [period of] time.”

Since the Abayudaya only formally converted in the last 20 years, and since the Jewish Agency only recognized them in 2010, Tzengen said the Interior Ministry takes the position that they do not meet these criteria.

While the criteria do indeed require that conversions be done in a “recognized, established community,” they also state that recognition can be afforded “if the community is recognized by the Jewish Agency,” as the Abayudaya were in 2010.

Tzengen argued however that the criteria “are not relevant for a community which established itself through conversion,” and said this was the opinion of the Interior Ministry.

The Abayudaya community in Uganda began adopting Jewish religious practices at the beginning of the 20th century. Most members formally converted through the US Conservative movement between 2002 and 2010, and were recognized as a Jewish community by the Jewish Agency in 2010.

Rabbi Steve Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, decried the rejection of Kibita and the Abayudaya community for eligibility under the Law of Return, and said the Interior Ministry’s position was typical of a growing crisis between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

“The Jewish roots of the Abayudaya go back 100 years [and] even though they only converted within the last 20 years, all the rabbis who converted them are recognized by our movement, and we care about them greatly,” said Wernick.

“We are greatly concerned that this community, and the whole issue of conversion, is another example of the disrespect to the Jewish people, the 70 faces of the Torah, and the many ways which Jews have approached Jewish life,” he continued, and denounced the Chief Rabbinate for what he said was its “increasingly fundamentalist” attitude and its control of institutions “that is strangling the Jewish people.”

Kibita, who was present in the hearing, said he was “heartbroken” when he was rejected for eligibility under the Law of Return.

“I have been raised Jewish. This is who I am. I am Jewish and I will die Jewish, that is me,” he declared.

The issue of so-called “emerging communities” has gathered importance as several groups in Africa and Latin America – along with other large groups of converts – have claimed affinity to, or descent from, the Jewish people in recent years.

This presents a challenge for the state, which as the Interior Ministry made clear in the Knesset committee, wants to treat mass conversions differently from individual conversions, out of a fear that it could be abused for the purpose of citizenship.

In January, Interior Ministry official Amos Arbel asked in committee, “Do you want half of Africa here?” in relation to another member of the Abayudaya community who was seeking a student visa to study in Israel.

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