Knesset members from across the political spectrum joined leaders of the Conservative movement on Monday in denouncing immigration officials as racist for denying recognition to the Jewish community of Uganda.
The accusations were leveled at a special session of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, held to address difficulties faced by Jewish converts who want to move to Israel.
The session was called following the recent decision by the Interior Ministry to reject an application by a member of the Abayudaya community to immigrate to Israel. It was the first such application submitted by a member of this 2,000-strong community in Uganda.
In its response, the Interior Ministry said it did not recognize conversions performed on members of the community.
Speaking at the session, Kibita Yosef – the Ugandan Jew whose request to immigrate was rejected – said he was “heartbroken” by the decision and that his only wish was “to be with my people.” He said he been practicing Judaism since he was born and that he attended Jewish school, observed Shabbat and had a bar mitzvah.
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The Interior Ministry had warned Yosef that he risked deportation if he did not leave Israel by mid-June, when his tourist visa was about to expire. But at the request of the Conservative movement in Israel, the High Court of Justice issued an injunction against his deportation.
“How does the Interior Ministry dare to deport someone who was born a Jew?” the outraged chairman of the committee, Avraham Nagosa, asked its representatives attending the session. “Do you have special criteria for black converts?” Nagosa, a member of the ruling Likud party, was born in Ethiopia.
According to the Law of Return, any individual converted in a “recognized Jewish community” is eligible to immigrate to Israel. Several years ago, the Jewish Agency granted recognition to the Abayudaya.
Interior Ministry officials attending the Knesset session said that, as far as they were concerned, the Abayudaya were not a recognized Jewish community but rather an emerging Jewish community and, therefore, not eligible to immigrate to Israel under existing criteria.
Nagosa proposed in response that the Agency and Interior Ministry form a joint committee to determine whether the Law of Return applies to emerging Jewish communities – in other words, communities in which the vast majority, if not all, of the members are converts to Judaism. Many such communities exist around the world today, particularly in South America.
The Abayudaya began practicing Judaism some 100 years ago, but were only officially converted in recent years. Most of the members were converted by rabbis from the Conservative movement.
Rabbi Mikie Goldstein, president of the Rabbinical Council of the Conservative Movement in Israel, noted that when he immigrated to Israel from England, no questions were raised about his Jewishness. “But when someone comes from Africa and his skin color is different, there are lots of questions asked,” he said. “And on top of that, he’s told that he’s not Jewish.”
Nerya Knafo, director of Jewish Pluralism Watch – a watchdog organization founded by the Conservative movement in Israel – noted that most recent cases of discrimination against converts in Israel involved individuals “with a certain color skin.”
“It has nothing to do with them being members of an emerging Jewish community, but rather this is the policy of a minister who discriminates among Jews on the basis of their skin color,” he said.
Yehuda Scharf, director of the immigration department at the Agency, said his organization had recognized the Abayudaya after a thorough investigation and on the basis of recommendations from the world Conservative movement.
“The Abayudaya are in every way, shape and form a recognized community for us,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism – the umbrella organization of the movement in North America. “It’s a community we care about greatly, and we are greatly concerned that this community, and the whole conversation about conversion that is taking place in Israel today, is just another example of the ongoing disrespect and delegitimization for the many faces with which Jews historically have approached Jewish life.”
He warned that “the gap between Jewish life outside Israel and those living inside Israel is growing wider and wider, and I just can’t imagine for the life of me how the continuation of this process can be good for the Jewish people, and for the safety and security of the State of Israel.”
Last December, another member of the Abayudaya community, who had been accepted into a program at the Conservative yeshiva in Jerusalem, was detained upon arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport and deported the following morning. The incident sparked international rage and accusations of racism.
The prospective student, Yehuda Kimani, tried re-entering Israel on a student visa but was denied entry.