A pair of Nigerian-born converts to Judaism who were married two years ago in a ceremony conducted by a rabbi recognized by the Chief Rabbinate remain unable to register themselves as a couple with the Interior Ministry, even though the husband has been an Israeli citizen since 2005, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
Chief Daniel Hiben, who was born to a well-respected Nigerian family, part of the Igbo community which is often said to have cultural links to Judaism, arrived in Israel in 1993. After four years spent converting to Judaism, Hiben, who holds a degree in clinical science technology, applied for citizenship and received it in 2005.
Two years later, he met and married fellow Nigerian convert Michal "Grace" Ajumorrah. Even though their wedding was conducted by a rabbi recognized by the rabbinate, the couple has been dragged through the courts by the Interior Ministry, which is refusing to grant Ajumorrah citizenship or recognize their union.
"My wife has no status in this country, she can't work and can't get health care," Hiben told The Jerusalem Post Wednesday. "This situation makes me very angry. I have to watch over her like she is a baby, making sure that she does not get sick and need medical attention."
Hiben says that both he and his wife converted via Orthodox instruction and to this day keep Shabbat and follow all the mitzvot.
"We are not refugees and can go back to Nigeria freely whenever we want, but we want to stay here because we are Jews," he says, adding that he has been subjected to several racial comments from Interior Ministry clerks that had led him to believe that the basis for the refusal is the color of the couple's skin.
"I'm almost sure that the [Interior Ministry's] decision is racist," commented Hiben's lawyer Eyal Szmulewitz. "If I, as a white Israeli, brought a non-Jewish woman from Canada here and married her I would most likely not be faced with the same problems."
He added: "This is a very unusual case and the Interior Ministry, for some reason, is intent on fighting against this couple."
Hiben's case has already been heard twice by the Tel Aviv District Court, which both times ruled in the couple's favor. The most recent hearing, in August, ordered the Interior Ministry to provide Ajumorrah with citizenship and recognize the couple as married within 15 days. So far, the ministry has refused to comply, and instead has appealed the decision in the Supreme Court.
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabene Hadad responded that the courts do not have a right to decide Interior Ministry policy regarding converts. She confirmed that the ministry had indeed petitioned the Supreme Court and refused to comment on Hiben's allegations of racism.
However, Rabbi Seth Farber, founder and director of Itim, a nonprofit that lobbies for improving the conversion process in Israel, told the Post that this is not the first such incident.
"We currently have a similar such case in the Supreme Court where the rabbinate recognizes the person but the Interior Ministry refuses to do so," he said. "The absurdity is that the Interior Ministry relies on the rabbinate to deny citizenship in some cases, while when it suits them, rabbinate approval is totally disregarded."
"The great irony in this situation is that every Jewish community around the world would recognize this couple as Jewish except Israel," he continued, adding that it was time for the country's Justice Ministry to do a "serious review of the immigration policy for Jewish converts" and update a system that seems to have no real order.