Battle for Recognition of Ugandan Jews to Move to Israel's Top Court

Conservative movement, which converted almost all of Abayudaya community's members, to demand that a government decision denying recognition be overturned

Kibita Yosef, a member of the Ugandan Abayudaya community, whose request to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return was denied at the end of May.
Sarah Nabaggala

The Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel will petition the High Court of Justice on Thursday, demanding that the government decision denying recognition to the Jewish community of Uganda be overturned.

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It will also ask the court to issue an injunction against the deportation of Kibita Yosef, a member of the Ugandan Abayudaya community, whose request to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return was denied two weeks ago. The Interior Ministry said in its response to his application that it does not recognize his conversion.

When asked about the decision, a spokeswoman for the ministry said: “This is a matter of principle regarding conversions in this community – it is not about one specific applicant.”

Almost all the members of the 2,000-strong Abayudaya community were converted by the Conservative-Masorti movement. Yosef was the first member of the community to apply for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.

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In its petition, the Conservative-Masorti movement will argue that the decision contradicts a previous High Court ruling, which required the state to recognize all conversions performed in “recognized Jewish communities” for the purpose of the Law of Return.

The Jewish Agency considers the Abayudaya a recognized Jewish community, but the ministry does not.

Yosef’s tourist visa is due to expire on Thursday, and the ministry informed him that if he does not leave the country by then, he risks deportation. He has been living on Ketura – a kibbutz affiliated with the Conservative movement – over the past year.

The Conservative-Masorti movement and Yosef are receiving legal representation from the Israel Religious Action Center – the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in the country. The petition will be filed against Interior Minister Arye Dery and Shlomo Mor-Yosef, director of the ministry's Population, Immigration and Border Authority.

Leaders of the world Conservative-Masorti movement were shocked and outraged by the ministry ruling against the Abayudaya – a community the movement has taken under its wing. In a statement issued last week, the leaders termed the move “a blow to Jewish unity.”

“It is outrageous, disrespectful and very possibly unlawful for the Interior Ministry to reject the validity of conversions performed abroad by a major Jewish movement,” their statement said, calling it “not only an affront to the Abayudaya, but also to the entire worldwide Conservative-Masorti movement.”

The Abayudaya began practicing Judaism some 100 years ago, but were only officially converted in recent years.

Last December, a member of the community, who had been accepted into a program at the Conservative yeshiva in Jerusalem, was detained upon arrival at the airport and deported the following morning. The incident sparked international rage and accusations of racism.