The High Court of Justice will hear an appeal Thursday against a decision by the state to deport 13 African-American Jews from Israel on the grounds that their conversion was bogus.
The appeal was submitted a year ago by the Israel Religious Action Center, an organization affiliated with the Reform movement and that advocates on behalf of religious pluralism in the country.
The 13 African Americans, originally from Kansas City, Missouri, are all members of one extended family. A court order prevents publishing their names because some are minors.
According to sources familiar with the case, the adult members of the family underwent a Reform conversion in the United States five years ago. Israeli law requires the government to recognize as Jewish, for the purpose of immigration, anyone converted abroad by a rabbi in a recognized congregation, regardless of its affiliation.
The family has been living in the southern coastal town of Ashkelon, which has had a small, but established community of African-American converts since September 2011. They are members of the Netzach Israel congregation there, which is affiliated with the Conservative-Masorti movement.
In December 2011, when their tourist visas expired, the family members applied for Israeli citizenship with the Interior Ministry and were turned down.
Asked to comment on the case, the Interior Ministry said the family’s request was rejected because of “serious doubts” raised, based on material presented to representatives of the Population Registry “about their conversion process and its purpose.”
Sources familiar with the case said the ministry officials also raised questions and concerns about the family’s possible ties to the Black Hebrew Israelites, a community of African Americans in Dimona, most of them originally from Chicago, who maintain they are descendants of the Tribe of Judah but are not recognized as Jews by the state.
Rabbi Andrew Sacks, the director of the Conservative-Masorti movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, said he was convinced such concerns were raised only because the family in question was African-American. “It is as though blacks must prove to be good Jews − something not required of others − and prove they have no connection to the Black Hebrews even though there really is no credible evidence that this is the case here,” he said.
In response, the Interior Ministry said: “All conversions undergo the same exact examination process.”
Sources familiar with this case and others involving converts to Judaism said this was the first time the Interior Ministry has challenged the validity of a conversion performed abroad by a rabbi in a recognized Jewish community. The outcome would therefore have significant and more widespread ramifications, they noted.
The African-American family − a mother, her two sons, their spouses and children − initially tried to immigrate to Israel through Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that handles immigration of Jews from North America and the United Kingdom for the Israeli government. They were told, however, that it would best if they dealt with the Interior Ministry directly. Based on this recommendation, they decided to come to Israel on tourist visas and apply for citizenship once they had arrived.
In recent years, African-American converts have come under intense scrutiny by Interior Ministry officials. According to sources who have been present at meetings held between the two sides, these converts are frequently questioned by ministry officials about their possible connections to the Black Hebrew community. The ministry appears to be concerned that they may be using their conversion as a way to get status in Israel in order to join the Black Hebrews in Dimona.
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