Black Jewish Lives Matter

 For some time I have held back writing more about racism with regard to the granting of visas to Jews who wish to come to Israel. Having tried to resolve the following matter quietly – I am no longer willing to remain quiet.
Marom is the Masorti organization for those of university age. About two years back, Marom, in partnership with the Jewish Agency, Masa (an umbrella organization that facilitates participation of many young people in quality programs here in Israel), and the Conservative Yeshiva (CY), asked to bring a small group of Jewish students from Uganda to study at CY. Funds were made available. Who were these students? They were members of the Jewish Abayudaya community in Uganda. For those who may not know of the Abayudaya, it is a community of Jews who have been practicing Judaism as best as they understood for nearly one hundred years. In 2002 many of the Abayudaya officially converted to Judaism. Their community leader, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, was ordained at the Ziegler Rabbinical School in LA. The community has synagogues, Jewish schools, a yeshiva, and a very active Jewish communal life.
Such a wonderful opportunity for young Jews to learn Torah and then return to their communities to share their knowledge with others. Masa, CY, Marom, and the Jewish Agency were all on board. Two of our Israeli Masorti rabbis flew to Uganda to interview the prospective CY students. So far – so good.
Just one small problem. In order to obtain a student visa to study at a non-degree granting institution (such as CY or Pardes) one must be Jewish. The Abayudaya have all of the documents to establish that they are Jewish and meet the demands of the Interior Ministry to obtain the student visa. But these visas were not/are not forthcoming. Those in charge of visas within the Interior Ministry were hesitant to accept the conversions. They began to look into the conversions when they received the first, and only, application for Aliyah by a member of the Abayudaya community. After discussions, investigations, and back and forth communications, the visa people passed the question of recognizing the Abayudaya as Jews to the office of the then Minister of the Interior, Gideon Saar. The minister passed on the investigation to his chief adviser. When we inquired about progress after some six months we were told by the advisor, “We are studying the issue of Africa.” This, I told him, seemed odd. “What do you have to study?” I asked. I pointed out that the Jews of South Africa were primarily of European backgrounds. Israel has had dealings for decades with the Jews of North Africa. We were not discussing any kind of mass Aliyah. Even more troubling was that a representative of the government was never sent to Uganda. Nobody from the Interior Ministry contacted any of us who had visited. The rabbi was not contacted by the Interior Ministry. So exactly how was the issue being studied? Still, I was told to be patient.
Here we are, still no visas. One of the six potential students from Uganda is now disqualified as he has passed the age of thirty. The others wait as time passes.
The people in the visa department had suggested that they may be willing to issue student visas if there was a promise made that those that came to study would not use the fact that they received student visas as proof that they are Jewish and, thus, entitled to make Aliyah. But even this racist effort to keep the Africans from coming was abandoned.
Now just one minute, some of you may be thinking to yourselves. Racism? Did Israel not bring thousands from Ethiopia? Well, yes they did. But there was a lobby to advocate on their behalf. In addition, the decision to bring the Ethiopians was not made by the Interior Ministry.
Is there not an organization bringing the so-called Bnei Menashe from India to Israel? Well, yes there is. Even more amazing is that by all definitions of being Jewish, both the halachic definition and those considered Jewish under the Law of Return, these people from India are not Jewish. So their arrival required special permission. A thorough investigation of the community and the organization that brings them here, by a leading Israeli journalist, revealed financial irregularities on a grand scale. Beyond that, false information was presented by the organization to the Knesset to seek approval for the move to Israel. The organization is headed by an ideologue that is committed to seeing Jewish settlement in areas that coincide with his political and ideological agenda – the same agenda as that of the Prime Minister. Indeed, the head of this organization was, in the past, a key media advisor to Mr. Netanyahu. Thus most of those who came (and are still coming) were sent to live deep in the Territories or in areas with a minority Jewish population. They were sent after undergoing conversion to Judaism here in Israel. This despite a government policy that restricts conversion in Israel only to those holding Israeli citizenship or residency. But the old saying “rules are rules” does not apply to those with political connections directly to the Prime Minister.
So, now back to the students from Uganda. When calling the Interior Ministry we are told that the decision is to be made by the office of the Interior Minister. But it seems, from conversations with that office that Minister Silvan Shalom has not even examined the matter. Meanwhile, just last week he announced that Israel would welcome seven hundred more of the non-Jewish Bnei Menashe – this despite a maximum of three hundred entries that were allowed by the government.
So what now? There are six spots still open at CY. The gap year program at of the Education Center at Kibbutz Hannaton would like to accept a few members of the Abayudaya community. Everything is in place now but for one small detail. The Interior Ministry will not agree to grant the student visas.
Still, is it really an issue of racism? It was just three years ago that we waged the fight to allow the Jews who had converted in the Amazon to make Aliyah. The Interior Ministry did not want those “Indians” to be allowed entry. Many are still waiting. A similar problem arose regarding a convert from Keifeng, China. There has been one struggle after another on behalf of African- American Jews by Choice who have sought to make Aliyah. Many are still waiting to have their cases adjudicated. Most of the bureaucrats in the Interior Ministry came to the ministry during the years it was controlled by the Shas political party. Shas has little tolerance for the unfamiliar and, all-the-more-so, if the unfamiliar people were converted by non-Orthodox rabbis (Israeli law requires that no distinction be made between Orthodox converts and those that are not Orthodox).
So again I ask- what now? I do not have a good answer. Nobody wants to make public accusations of racism. It may give ammunition to those who seek to bash Israel and Zionism. But we cannot keep silent. The problem lays not with those that charge the government in Israel with racism. The problem is lays squarely with those who are guilty of racism and hide behind an ensconced bureaucracy to avoid saying yes to those Jews who have every right to be here.
This is not the first time I have written about racism with regard to Aliyah. I hope it will be the last but I doubt that it will be. So – stay tuned for we shall not give up until justice is done. Black Jewish lives really do matter.