Conservative Movement to Petition Top Court After Israel Resolves Not to Recognize Ugandan Jews

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Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, spiritual leader of the Abayudaya community, on a visit to Israel, January 30, 2018.
Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, spiritual leader of the Abayudaya, on a visit to Israel, January 30, 2018. He had hoped the Interior Ministry would recognize his community as Jewish.Credit: meged gozani

The Conservative movement intends to petition the High Court of Justice following Israel's decision to deny recognition to Uganda’s Jewish community.

As first reported in Haaretz on Thursday, the Israeli Interior Ministry has decided that members of the 2,000-strong Abayudaya community are not eligible to move to Israel under the Law of Return.

Its decision was revealed in a response to the first and only request thus far by a member of the community, who sought to immigrate to the Jewish state.

The ministry noted in its response that the applicant, Kibita Yosef, could risk deportation if he does not leave Israel by June 14, when his tourist visa expires.

“The Interior Ministry has now proven itself to place political considerations above the law,” said Rabbi Andy Sacks, director of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel. “We will prepare any and all legal methods to see that justice is achieved,” he added.

Sacks said the Conservative movement hopes to convene a special emergency hearing of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs before its petition is submitted.

The Conservative movement had been holding discussions on the status of the Abayudaya community with the Interior Ministry for more than five years.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, who leads the Rabbinical Assembly, told JTA last Friday that the Conservative movement was “shocked and extremely outraged” at the decision, which she called “unlawful.”

The petition to the High Court will be submitted through the Israel Religious Action Center, which is the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in the country.

“The decision by the Interior Ministry contradicts all legal precedents, as well as the criteria that it itself drew up regarding recognition of conversions of recognized communities overseas,” said Nicole Maor, the IRAC attorney who will be handling the case.

“There is no doubt whatsoever that the Abayudaya are members of the world Conservative-Masorti movement and the Interior Ministry is, therefore, obliged to recognize conversions performed in its framework,” she said.

In its response to Yosef’s application, the Interior Ministry wrote that his “conversion is not recognized for the purpose of receiving status in Israel.” The response noted that Yosef had the right to challenge the decision in the High Court.

The Interior Ministry later clarified to Haaretz that “this is a matter of principle regarding conversions in this community – it is not about one specific applicant.”

Sacks said the decision should be of concern to Jews of all denominations, “because it is a slap in the face by the Israeli government with regards to recognition of various rabbinical conversion courts.”

Converts are eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return regardless of what movement they are affiliated with, provided they come from recognized Jewish communities.

The Abayudaya began practicing Judaism about 100 years ago, but were only officially converted in recent years. The Jewish Agency considers them to be a recognized Jewish community, but the Interior Ministry has the final say on such matters.

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.

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