By Our Reporter
After years of deliberation, Israel’s Interior Ministry has determined that members of the Jewish community of Uganda are not eligible to immigrate to Israel. The Jewish Agency had ruled several years ago that they are, but the Interior Ministry has the upper hand in such matters.
The decision was revealed in the state’s response on Tuesday to a petition filed in the High Court of Justice by a member of the community whose request to immigrate had been rejected. Minister of Interior Arye Dery and the Population and Immigration Authority are listed as respondents in the case.
A ruling in favor of the state could have serious repercussions for “emerging Jewish communities” around the world interested in connecting to Israel. This would include “Bnei Anusim” – descendants of Jews forced to convert during the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions – as well as communities that claim descent from the “Lost Israelite tribes” and entire communities of converts in South America. The High Court is scheduled to hold a hearing in the case on February 3.
The Abayudaya, who do not have Jewish roots, embraced Judaism about 100 years ago. Only about 20 years ago, however, did members of this community begin undergoing formal conversions. Most of these conversions were overseen by rabbis affiliated with the Conservative movement. Most of the 2,000-strong community reside today in several villages in eastern Uganda, with a tiny number in Kenya.
wo and a half years ago, the Interior Ministry rejected a request from Kibita Yosef – who was then participating in a study program in Israel run by the Conservative movement – to obtain immigrant status under the Law of Return. According to the Law of Return, any person who converts to Judaism is eligible to immigrate to Israel on condition that the conversion was conducted in a “recognized Jewish community” – regardless of denominational affiliation.
Kibita was the first member of the Ugandan community to apply to immigrate.
He was informed by the Interior Ministry that his request had been rejected because his conversion did not meet the required criteria. In response, Kibita, together with the Conservative movement in Israel, petitioned the High Court. They are being represented by the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in the country.
In its response to the petition, the state said explicitly for the first time that it does not regard the Abayudaya as a “recognized Jewish community,” and therefore, member are not eligible for immigration under the Law of Return.
Rabbi Andy Sacks, the director of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement in Israel, termed the decision “outrageous.”
The Jewish Agency ruled several years ago that the Abayudaya are a “recognized Jewish community. Since then, it has been trying to convince the Interior Ministry to accept this position. Until this week, the ministry had never stated categorically what its position was on the Abayudaya. At times, it did approve visa requests from community members allowing them to participate in programs run by the Conservative movement in Israel. At other times, such applications were rejected Two years ago, the first – and so far only – group of Ugandan Jews visited Israel on Birthright, the organization that provides free, 10-day trips to Israel for young Jewish adults from countries around the world.