Israel Insists It Doesn't Discriminate Against Converts of Color, but These Examples Prove Otherwise

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A candidate for conversion sits before a special conversion court in Jerusalem.
A candidate for conversion sits before a special conversion court in Jerusalem.Credit: Haaretz

Those who argue that Israel systematically discriminates against converts of color cite the recent deportation of a Jew from Kenya just hours after he arrived in the country as further proof.

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Yehudah Kimani, 31, was converted by a Conservative rabbinical court in 2010 and is a member of the Abayudaya community, based in Uganda. Although he had a valid tourist visa in his passport, he was detained upon landing in Israel and sent back to Kenya the next morning.

The immigration authorities tend to be suspicious of people of color who convert, often believing their true motive for becoming Jewish is to be eligible for the benefits bestowed on Jews who immigrate to Israel.

>> 'He’s a goy from Kenya': Israeli officials defend deportation of Jewish convert from Africa <<

The Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs held a special session on Wednesday to address allegations that the Interior Ministry discriminates against converts of color, especially from the Conservative movement. Speaking at the session, Amos Arbel, the director of its Population Registry and Status Department, denied that different criteria are applied to visa applicants based on their country of origin. However, he also asked his detractors: “Do you want half of Africa coming here?”

The Interior Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

The following are some cases of converts of color – all of them affiliated with the non-Orthodox movements – who encountered major challenges visiting or moving to Israel in recent years because of such suspicions:

Early last year, nine converts from Venezuela were told they could not immigrate to Israel because their conversions were not valid.  Eventually, their case was heard in the Knesset and a compromise was reached: They could move to Israel provided that they went through a second “symbolic” conversion beforehand – to be on the safe side. All nine were converted by Conservative rabbis.

Venezuelan Jewish converts arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel, March 23, 2017.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner/AP

Following a drawn-out legal battle, the Interior Ministry agreed in 2015 to recognize a large African-American family of converts as citizens of Israel. Members of the Mosley family had been converted by a Reform rabbi in Kansas before moving to Israel, where they had joined a Conservative synagogue. But the Interior Ministry challenged their conversions, and citing “serious doubts” about the process, ordered the entire family deported. The case prompted the Supreme Court to demand that the Interior Ministry publish a full list of criteria for recognizing conversions performed abroad.

Another African-American convert whose case has yet to be resolved is Adi Quick, a mother of five originally from Texas who came to Israel on a trial trip four years ago with her second husband, who is Israeli. Quick, who was converted by a Conservative rabbi, has yet to be granted Israeli citizenship and lives under the constant threat of deportation. The Interior Ministry has called into question her commitment to Judaism because she does not attend synagogue regularly. Quick has countered that attending synagogue regularly is out of the question for her because one of her children is severely autistic and unable to sit quietly for the hours required during services.

Five members of the Abayudaya community applied for student visas in 2013 so that they could participate in a study abroad program in Israel. Their visa applications were held up in the Interior Ministry for three years, while officials deliberated over whether they qualified as members of a “recognized” Jewish community. Eventually, their visas were approved, but only after the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry intervened on their behalf. All five were converted by Conservative rabbis.

Members of the Abayudaya community pray in Mbale, eastern Uganda.Credit: Stephen Wandera/AP

Deportation orders were issued five years ago against two women from Peru who arrived in Israel several years earlier on tourist visas after having converted to Judaism. The grounds for deportation were that their conversions were not valid. The case reached the Supreme Court, where a ruling was handed down in their favor. Both women were converted by Conservative rabbis.

In another case, a woman converted in Guatemala by a Reform rabbi from Canada was kept on hold for years before her application to immigrate to Israel was finally approved – only after the Israel Religious Advocacy Center, the local advocacy arm of the Reform movement, intervened on her behalf.

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