One African Jew's Struggle to Get to Israel: After Being Deported, State Shuts Door for Second Time

The reason being, says Israel's Interior Ministry, that the Kenyan's conversion is 'not recognized' by relevant authorities

Yehuda Kimani reads from the Torah at Ner Tamid synagogue in Boston.
Alan Pransky

A convert from Kenya whose recent deportation from Israel sparked outrage across the Jewish world has suffered another setback: His second application for a visa to Israel – this time, in order to study at the Conservative yeshiva in Jerusalem – has been denied, Haaretz has learned.

The Ministry of Interior only approves student visas for individuals enrolled in yeshivas in Israel if they can prove they are Jewish. Asked for comment, Ministry of Interior spokeswoman Sabine Haddad said that the conversion of Yehudah Kimani was “not recognized” by the relevant authorities, and therefore, his application for a student visa was bound to be rejected.

If he still wished to visit Israel, she said, he would be allowed to travel to the country on a three-month tourist visa.

Kimani (who was born Francis Kimani Njogu) has been accepted to study in a four-month program at the Conservative yeshiva that begins later this month.

In late December, he arrived in Israel with plans to study at another, shorter-term program offered by the Conservative yeshiva. But no sooner had he landed than he was detained for questioning, despite having a valid tourist visa in his possession. After being held overnight, Kimani was sent back on a plane to Kenya the following morning.

The Ministry of Interior said at the time that Kimani was deported because he had not bothered to inform the Israeli embassy in Nairobi that a previous visa application of his had been rejected. A few weeks later, at an emergency meeting held in the Knesset, a senior official at the Ministry of Interior provided a different explanation for the decision. He said Kimani had been deported because he entered Israel on a tourist visa when he should have requested a student visa since his plan was to spend his time in the country studying at a yeshiva.

Leaders of the Conservative movement charged that Kimani was a victim of discrimination and that he was deported because he was black and because he underwent a non-Orthodox conversion.

Kimani is a member of the Abayudaya community, which is based in eastern Uganda. The Abayudaya began practicing Judaism about 100 years ago, but its members have only undergone official conversions – mainly by the Conservative movement – over the past 15 years. Kimani was converted in 2010.

The Law of Return allows any individual who has converted to Judaism to immigrate to Israel and receive Israeli citizenship, provided he or she has been converted in a recognized Jewish community. In April 2016, the Jewish Agency ruled that the Abayudaya is a recognized Jewish community. In theory, then, any member of the community is eligible to immigrate to Israel, not to mention visit the country.

However, the Interior Ministry has the final say in such matters, and it has yet to accept the Abayudaya as a recognized Jewish community for the purpose of the Law of Return.

Conservative movement leaders have come to regard Kimani as a test case for recognition of their conversions in Israel. They deliberately decided to submit an application for a student visa on his behalf, knowing that if it were rejected, their case against the Ministry of Interior would be strengthened.

According to Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel, had he and his colleagues accepted the ultimatum of the Ministry of Interior and applied for a tourist visa on Kimani’s behalf, they would have been complicit in an act of deception. “Ministry of Interior policy requires students at yeshivas to obtain special student visas, so if Yehudah were to come study here on a tourist visa, that would have been in violation of their policy.”

David Breakstone, deputy chairman of the Jewish Agency, said he was “distressed” to learn that Kimani’s visa request had been rejected. “The Ministry of Interior was informed that the Jewish Agency has determined that the Abayudaya is a fully recognized Jewish community since 2009 and thus anyone who converted within the community from that date on, as is the case with Mr. Kimani, is to be recognized as being Jewish for any and all purposes,” he said.  “That determination was made in accordance with the criteria established by the Population and Immigration Authority in a document that explicitly grants the Jewish Agency the authority to render such a decision. Accordingly, we intend to clarify the matter directly with those responsible for the refusal to grant Mr. Kimani the student visa he has requested.”