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Israel Rules Not to Recognize Ugandan Jewish Community

Interior Ministry rejects immigration request from member of Abayudaya community, explaining that ‘this is a matter of principle regarding conversions in this community’

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

After years of deliberations, the Israeli Interior Ministry has resolved not to grant recognition to the Jewish community of Uganda, Haaretz has learned.

Its decision was revealed in a response to the first and only request thus far by a member of the 2,000-strong Ugandan Abayudaya community, who sought to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return.

The response, obtained by Haaretz, notes that the applicant’s “conversion is not recognized for the purpose of receiving status in Israel” and that, therefore, he must leave the country by June 14 or risk deportation.

When Haaretz asked the ministry about its decision, a spokesperson said, “This is a matter of principle regarding conversions in this community – it is not about one specific applicant.”

The decision is a slap in the face to the Conservative movement, which converted most of the members of this emerging Jewish community and has taken it under its wings.

The application was submitted by Kibita Yosef, who has been living on Ketura – a kibbutz affiliated with the Conservative movement – over the past year.

The response said that Yosef is entitled to challenge the decision in the High Court of Justice.

Converts are eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, regardless of what movement they are affiliated with, provided they come from recognized Jewish communities. But through its response, the ministry clarified that it does not regard the Abayudaya as a recognized Jewish community.

The Abayudaya began practicing Judaism about 100 years ago, but were only officially converted in recent years. The Jewish Agency considers them to be a recognized Jewish community, but the Interior Ministry has the final say on such matters.

Some members of the community have participated in Jewish exchange programs in Israel after obtaining either tourist or student visas. Over the past five years, the ministry has said – in response to questions on the matter – that it is still examining the status of the Abayudaya.

Forty members of the community are scheduled to arrive in Israel later this summer on a first-of-its-kind Birthright trip from Uganda.

Last December, a member of the community, who had been accepted into a program at the Conservative yeshiva in Jerusalem, was detained upon arrival at the airport and deported the following morning. The incident sparked international rage and accusations of racism.

The decision to deny recognition to the Abayudaya could impact all future visa applications from members of the community.

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