Opposition lawmakers on Wednesday accused the Interior Ministry of outright racism and discrimination against black Jews, citing the recent case of an African convert who was deported hours after landing in Israel, even though he had a valid visa.
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Kenyan citizen Yehudah Kimani, 31, had obtained permission from the Israeli ambassador in Nairobi to study at a yeshiva run by the Conservative movement in Jerusalem. But after being detained at the airport, he was not allowed to call his sponsors in Israel.
“I am sorry to say, but there is no other word to describe this but racism,” said Yael Cohen Paran (Zionist Union). She was speaking at a special session convened by the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs to determine whether the Interior Ministry systematically discriminates against converts of color – particularly those affiliated with the Conservative movement.
“Let’s be honest, if he had been a white man from another place in the world they would have at least let him call a lawyer,” said Zionist Union’s leader in the Knesset, Isaac Herzog. His party colleague, Ksenia Svetlova, noted: “I’m sure if he had been invited to attend a Satmar [Hasidic sect] yeshiva, he wouldn’t have encountered any problems.”
Responding to the allegations, the director of the ministry’s Population Registry and Status Department, Amos Arbel, 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?”
Arbel said that as far as the ministry was concerned, Kimani was not Jewish: “Sorry to say this, but for us he is a goy from Kenya.”
A ministry spokeswoman had originally explained that Kimani (who was born Francis Kimani Njogu) was deported because he hadn’t bothered notifying embassy staff in Nairobi that a previous visa request had been rejected and “because of concerns that he would stay here.”
But at the Knesset session on Wednesday Arbel said the reason Kimani was deported was because he had applied for a tourist visa when he should have been applying for a student one.
Representatives of the Conservative movement pointed out that Kimani had not applied for a student visa because his request would have been immediately rejected due to current ministry guidelines.
They explained that in the case of non-degree-conferring institutions of higher education, such as yeshivas, the ministry only approves student visas for applicants recognized as Jewish. To date, Israel has yet to recognize the Abayudaya – the community to which Kimani belongs and which is based in Uganda – as Jewish. They are, however, recognized as Jewish by the Jewish Agency.
Kimani’s conversion to Judaism in 2010 was overseen by the rabbi from the Abayudaya community in Uganda.
The Abayudaya community split from Christianity in the early 20th century when its members began identifying as Jews and observing Jewish laws and customs. The community numbers somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 members.
At the conclusion of the session, Arbel agreed to allow Kimani to apply again for a visa – but only a tourist visa. Conservative movement leaders have yet to decide whether to accept this precondition.
In a video message delivered during the session, Kimani said he was “disappointed and confused,” and that he still did not understand why he had been denied entry to Israel. “I still want to study at the Conservative yeshiva in Jerusalem,” he added.
Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative movement in Israel, noted that Kimani’s deportation had been headline news in Kenya. “It made Israel look very, very bad,” he said.
Saying he preferred to avoid the term “racism,” Jewish Agency Deputy Chairman David Breakstone warned: “I suspect our enemies will latch onto this to call us racists, and Kimani will become the poster boy for the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement and for those who call Israel an apartheid state.”
He added that the Jewish Agency was currently in discussions with the Interior Ministry about recognizing the Abayudaya as an official Jewish community.
One member of the Abayudaya, Shoshana Nambi, told the session that although she had succeeded in obtaining a visa to study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, she did not qualify for the usual scholarships because the Interior Ministry does not consider her Jewish. Nambi was converted by a Conservative movement rabbinical court in 2002.
“Even though we have been practicing Jews for almost 100 years, we are still struggling with acceptance and want to belong,” she added.