Appeal to Grant Israeli Citizenship to Ugandan Convert Rejected

The application, turned down by the Interior Ministry, was viewed as a test case for a landmark court ruling recognizing conversions performed in Israel by non-Orthodox movements

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Yosef Kibita, a member of Uganda's Abayudaya Jewish community. He underwent three conversions and has been living in Israel for four years.
Yosef Kibita, a member of Uganda's Abayudaya Jewish community. He underwent three conversions and has been living in Israel for four years. Credit: Sarah Nabaggala
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Israel’s Interior Ministry rejected on Wednesday an appeal to reconsider the application for citizenship under the Law of Return from a member of the Jewish community of Uganda who was converted through the Conservative movement.

The application, submitted by Yosef Kibita, was rejected last month on the grounds that he had not undergone a proper conversion program. Kibita, a member of the 2,000-strong Abayudaya community, has been living in Israel for the past four years and has undergone three separate conversions to Judaism – two in Uganda and one in Israel.

The Israel Religious Action Center, which appealed the decision, noted that Kibita has been living on Ketura, a kibbutz affiliated with the Conservative-Masorti movement, since moving to Israel, where he is an active member of the religious community. It noted that back in Uganda, he had studied in a Jewish school and was an active member of the Jewish community there as well.

In its rejection letter, the Interior Ministry said that Kibita must leave Israel within 30 days. The letter was signed by Ronit Elian, director of the foreign visas department.

His application for citizenship had been viewed as a test case for the landmark Supreme Court ruling last March that recognized conversions performed in Israel by the Conservative and Reform movements. Kibita is the first member of the Abayudaya community to apply for citizenship in Israel.

In 2018, he applied for citizenship under the Law of Return but was rejected. The Interior Ministry told him that his conversion did not meet the required criteria. In response, Kibita, together with the Conservative movement in Israel, petitioned the High Court. They were represented by IRAC, the advocacy arm of he Reform movement in Israel.

In February, the court ruled in favor of the Interior Ministry, noting that Kibita was converted in 2008 – a year before the Abayudaya were accepted into the international Conservative-Masorti movement and a year before they obtained recognized status from the Jewish Agency. Kibita’s work visa was, however, extended until the end of December, and the court recommended that in the meantime, he convert again in a recognized Jewish community.

When the High Court ruled a month later that non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel would be recognized for the purpose of the Law of Return, the Conservative movement decided to take up the court’s suggestion and have him converted in the country. Since Kibita had already been practicing Judaism from a young age, the movement decided to suffice with a quick conversion that did not require the usual lengthy period of study.

Yosef Kibita at the office of the Ministry of the Interior, which again rejected his application for citizenship.Credit: Sara Cohen

Responding to Elian’s letter, Alon Tal, a lawmaker from the centrist Kahol Lavan party, sent an urgent letter to Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked on Wednesday urging her to intervene. “The issue of Mr. Kibita’s status has already sparked debate in the Jewish world because the decision would seem to delegitimize the Conservative movement, which has one million members around the world.”

Tal, an active member of the Conservative movement, wrote that IRAC planned to appeal the decision in court – a move he supported. “Regardless of how the court rules, I assume we can all agree that any person facing fateful decisions about his future deserves at least to have his day in court without the threat of deportation. This is especially true when it comes to a Jew who arrived in Israel on a Jewish Agency program, is active in the community and the synagogue of Kibbutz Ketura and, of course, has proven himself to be a law-abiding resident who has integrated well into the Israeli economy.”

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