Israel Extends No Warm Welcome to Ugandan Jews, Using Technicality to Deny Visas

Interior Ministry dragging its feet, citing an unforeseen bureaucratic technicality to in effect reject their conversions to Judaism

Members of the Abayudaya community in Uganda with an Israeli rabbi, right.
Members of the Abayudaya community in Uganda with an Israeli rabbi, right. Courtesy Channel 20

Jewish converts from Uganda have in recent months encountered severe difficulties obtaining visas to study and live in Israel despite having obtained official status as a recognized community. Because of an unforeseen bureaucratic technicality, their conversions to Judaism have effectively been rejected.

The Abayudaya community split from Christianity in the early 20th century when its members began self-identifying as Jews and observing Jewish laws and customs. In 2002, a rabbinical court sent to Uganda by the Conservative movement formally converted most of the 1,500-strong community. Since 2009, the community has had its own rabbi.

Last year, the Jewish Agency ruled that the Abayudaya are a recognized Jewish community. Only converts from officially recognized communities are eligible for citizenship in Israel under the Law of Return. By the same token, only converts from officially recognized communities are eligible for student visas to attend yeshiva programs in Israel.

The Ministry of Interior, however, has refused to approve requests to immigrate to Israel or study in Israel from members of the community who converted before 2009 – in other words, before the Abayudaya were officially recognized as a Jewish community.

“It would appear that a combination of racial prejudice, a bias against non-Orthodox conversion, a failure to issue timely decisions as demanded by the criteria of the Interior Ministry, and a structure where the responsibility to resolve the issues relating to immigration and the issuing of student visas is passed from on person to the next, has, sadly, left these Jews seeking to live or study in Israel, in limbo,” said Rabbi Andy Sacks, director of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement in Israel.

In several cases, members of the community who had arrived in Israel this year hoping to begin studying in yeshiva programs discovered that they were not eligible for the usual stipends and grants paid to overseas students because they were converted before 2009. Their current status in Israel is, therefore, uncertain.

In another case, a member of the community who worked in Camp Ramah in New York this summer had applied to immigrate to Israel while there. He has yet to receive any reply from the Interior Ministry. Another member of the community who applied to study in the Conservative Yeshiva this summer was notified by the ministry that his application had been denied because his motives were suspect.

David Breakstone, deputy chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency, told Haaretz he was determined to resolve the problem. “I want to explore if there might ways to amend the existing regulations that would get people out of this twilight zone,” he said. “I don’t think this was the intention of these regulations, as they are currently being interpreted.”

Breakstone, who also heads the small Jewish communities committee at the Jewish Agency, said he was “very concerned” about the situation that had developed.

Asked to respond, an Interior Ministry spokesman said: “This issue has come up in the past, and since it pertains to policy, it is pending a government decision. We are awaiting responses, but at the same time, are unaware of any difficulties experienced by members of the Abayudaya community.”