Israel’s Top Court to Hear Test Case for Recognizing Emerging Jewish Communities

File photo: Ugandan Jews of the Abayudaya community pray at the new Stern Synagogue in Mbale, eastern Uganda, November 3, 2016. Credit: Stephen Wandera/AP

Israel’s top court will hold its first hearing on Sunday in a pivotal case for emerging Jewish communities around the world and their recognition by the state.

The High Court of Justice is being asked to intervene on behalf of a Jew of choice from Uganda whose request to immigrate to Israel was denied by the Interior Ministry because it did not recognize his conversion.

Yosef Kibita, a member of the 2,000-strong Abayudaya community, submitted his request to immigrate last year. The Abayudaya, among the largest emerging Jewish communities in the world, began practicing Judaism about 100 years ago but were only officially converted in recent years.

Yosef Kibita.Sarah Nabaggala

At the time he submitted his request to immigrate, 32-year-old Kibita was participating in a gap year program in Israel sponsored by the Conservative-Masorti movement. He was notified in June that his application had been denied and that he risked deportation if he did not leave the country by the time his tourist visa had expired. The High Court issued a temporary injunction against his deportation at the request of the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel.

The Conservative-Masorti movement is petitioning the High Court to overturn the Interior Ministry’s ruling so that Kibita can be registered as a Jew in Israel and be allowed to remain the country. It argues that he meets all the eligibility requirements for immigration to Israel under the Law of Return.

According to the Law of Return, any individual with at least one Jewish grandparent or any convert to Judaism from a “recognized Jewish community” is eligible to immigrate to Israel and obtain immediate citizenship. Under the law, it does not matter what movement the convert is affiliated with.

The Interior Ministry has taken this to mean that any Abayudaya converted before 2009 are not eligible for immigration to Israel. Kibita, like the vast majority of the Abayudaya, was converted before 2009. He underwent his initial conversion, along with 300 other members of the community, in 2002, and a second conversion (to eliminate any doubts about the validity of the first) in 2008. Both conversions were overseen by rabbis from the Conservative movement.

In its initial response to the petition, sent last week, the Interior Ministry said that the case should be dismissed because Kibita was converted before the Abayudaya became a recognized Jewish community.

The High Court has been asked to issue a conditional order requiring the state to explain why members of the community converted before 2009 should be automatically rejected.

Kibita and the Conservative-Masorti movement are receiving legal representation from the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in the country.

He is the first member of the Abayudaya to apply for Israeli citizenship. Other members of the community have taken part in Israel experience programs – such as Birthright and Masa – that require participants to meet the eligibility requirements of the Law of Return. Many, though, have been rejected from these programs.

In late 2017, a member of the Abayudaya, 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 outrage and accusations of racism.

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