Jewish Agency Effectively Walks Back Recognition of Uganda’s Jewish Community

Despite officially recognizing the Abayudaya in 2016 and actively backing their struggle for the right to immigrate to Israel, the Agency is now acquiescing to Interior Ministry rulings rejecting conversions in the community

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Members of the Abayudaya community at the then-new Stern Synagogue in Mbale, eastern Uganda, in 2016.
Members of the Abayudaya community at the then-new Stern Synagogue in Mbale, eastern Uganda, in 2016.Credit: Stephen Wandera / AP
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

In a significant shift in policy, the Jewish Agency has effectively withdrawn its recognition of the Jewish community of Uganda.

In practice, this means that members of the 2,000-strong Abayudaya community will no longer be eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. Neither will they be allowed to participate in government-sponsored Israel experience programs like Birthright and Masa.

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The change in policy was revealed in response to a question from Haaretz concerning the recent rejection of an aliyah application submitted by a member of this community of converts, which is part of the international Conservative-Masorti movement.

When asked why the application of Violet Nabulo – a 25-year-old member of the Abayudaya who visited Israel twice – had been rejected, the Jewish Agency issued the following response: “The Interior Ministry does not recognize the Abayudaya conversions. Under these circumstances, and since the Interior Ministry has the last word on granting immigrant status, our Global Center found it unnecessary to proceed with Ms. Nabulo’s request, which was bound to be rejected by the Interior Ministry.”

The Jewish Agency officially recognized the Abayudaya in 2016 and has actively backed their struggle for the right to immigrate to Israel and to be treated like any other individuals recognized under the Law of Return. The rejection of Nabulo’s application and the subsequent explanation provided by the Agency would seem to indicate it has given up on this cause and has effectively accepted the ministry position that the Abayudaya are not legitimate Jews.

In her letter of rejection from the Agency, Nabulo was informed that “the Israeli Interior Ministry doesn’t recognize the conversions performed in Uganda, and therefore we’re not able to start your aliyah process. Until and if this decision by the Israeli authorities is changed, we won’t be able to even start your aliyah process.”

Any individual applying for aliyah outside Israel must first be approved by the Jewish Agency. The Agency then submits its recommendation to the Interior Ministry, which has the final say. It is rare for the ministry to overrule the Agency on such matters.

According to the Law of Return, Jews by choice are eligible to immigrate to Israel as long as they have been converted in a “recognized Jewish community,” regardless of the denominational affiliation of the rabbis overseeing the process. The Jewish Agency determines which Jewish communities are recognized for this purpose.

Five years ago, Yehuda Scharf, the former head of the Jewish Agency aliyah department, issued a letter stating that members of the Abayudaya would be considered part of a recognized Jewish community provided they had undergone conversion after 2009. This was the year their community was accepted into Masorti Olami, the international umbrella organization for the Conservative movement.

The Abayudaya community's Stern Synagogue in Mbale, eastern Uganda.Credit: Stephen Wandera / AP

At a board of governors meeting in June 2018, the Jewish Agency issued a first-of-its-kind official statement on the matter of emerging Jewish communities, which included the following reference to the Abayudaya: “The Jewish Agency will continue to support the rights to which the Abayudaya, and members of any and all communities it recognizes, are entitled vis-à-vis the Law of Return, entry to Israel and participation in Israel programs. The Abayudaya community had been cruelly persecuted under Idi Amin in the 1970s, for no other reason than their identification as Jews. This fact has gone unacknowledged in the Jewish world. Therefore, the chairman of the Jewish Agency will submit a proposal for an appropriate commemoration of the victims of this persecution.”

Natan Sharansky, who served as Jewish Agency chairman at the time, had championed the eastern Ugandan community’s cause. His successor, Isaac Herzog, showed little interest in it.

Asked to comment on the change in Jewish Agency policy regarding the Abayudaya, Masorti Olami Executive Director Rabbi Mauricio Balter said: “It is sad and inconceivable that the Jewish Agency has decided to give in like this, when its primary mission should be making sure that every Jew who so desires should be able to make aliyah. I have been to Uganda and visited this community, and I only wish that Jewish communities elsewhere had as rich a communal religious life as they do.”

Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata showed little inclination to intervene in the matter. When asked for her response, Tamano-Shata’s office issued the following statement: “Our ministry works to bring Jews from the Diaspora on aliyah. It is the Interior Ministry that has the authority to determine who can enter Israel. Best to contact them. We don’t decide who’s eligible and who isn’t or which conversions are recognized and which aren’t.”

Earlier this week, the Interior Ministry rejected an application for aliyah from another member of the Abayudaya, who underwent a conversion in Israel through the Conservative movement earlier this year. It was viewed as a test case for the landmark High Court of Justice ruling, handed down in March, that recognizes conversions performed by the non-Orthodox movements in Israel for the purpose of the Law of Return.

Yosef Kibita, whose application was rejected, has already converted three times – the two previous times before the Abayudaya joined Masorti Olami and were deemed a recognized community.

Yosef Kibita, whose aliyah application was rejected this week.Credit: Sara Cohen

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