Pride and prejudice: The State of Israel vs Yosef Kibita

Yosef Kibita reading from the Torah in the synagogue at Kibbutz Ketura, his adopted home for the last three years. (Courtesy)

On February 1, Israel’s Supreme Court will be hearing a case involving thousands of Jews around the world currently denied the right to make aliyah under the Law of Return.

The petition was actually filed in the name of only one individual, but his circumstances are such that the verdict in his case will have profound implications for countless others.

Perhaps even more profoundly, it will establish the rules of engagement that will govern relations between Israel and Jewish communities around the world for years to come. Given that those relations have reached a new nadir of fragility, the outcome of the case is likely to be particularly impactful.

Should the court take a clear stand on the matter one way or the other, it will either establish the grounds for an era of nurturing mutual respect between Jews abroad and the Jewish state whose leaders claim it belongs to them as well as to its citizens, or exacerbate an already mounting sense of estrangement one from the other.

So who is it that stands at the center of this drama and what is at stake?
Enter 33-year-old Yosef Kibita, born and bred among the Abayudaya of Uganda, a 2,000-strong community that embraced the Jewish faith more than a century ago.

A hundred years of living as Jews notwithstanding, two decades ago its members determined to undergo halachic conversions in order to establish themselves as an integral component of mainstream Judaism.

The Conservative movement heeded their yearning to belong, and, after carefully assessing their sincerity and establishing criteria and a regimen ensuring both knowledge and practice of traditional Judaism, began conducting individual conversions in 2002.

Kibita, 15 at the time, was among the first to complete the process, an expression of his youthful exuberance for Jewish learning and observance. He would reaffirm his faith as an adult six years later in a procedure known as giyur l’humra – a second conversion intended to dispel any doubt about the validity of one’s Jewishness.

It would be almost another decade, however, before he would fulfill his lifelong dream of spending time in Israel – but not without a struggle.

In 2016, Kibita applied to a long-term Israel program under the auspices of Masa. He was rejected on the grounds that the program was open only to Jews, and the state did not consider him one.

Several months of wrangling with officialdom, assisted by leadership of the Masorti Movement in Israel, ultimately enabled him to procure a student visa – for which one needn’t be Jewish – and participate in a study program of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

The experience reinforced Kibita’s determination to make Israel home, despite the rebuff of the Interior Ministry.

“I’d always dreamed of living here,” he says, “but I was also realistic enough to know that what I dreamed of might be very different than the reality, and I had to test it myself. I fell in love with the place.”

His reason? Hardly different from what one hears from olim from anywhere. “The Jews are a tiny minority in Uganda, even in the villages where we live. There, everything is the same 24/7. You don’t even feel Shabbat coming. In Jerusalem, like wow! Everything slows down. The mind, the body, the soul – they’re all resting. This is where I wanted to be living.”

Even before his program ended, Kibita began the aliyah process. The person who interviewed him had no reason to expect a problem in approving the request, as the Jewish Agency had in the meantime recognized the Abayudaya as a Jewish community in accordance with the authority granted it and in keeping with the guidelines established by the Interior Ministry. But he and Kibita were to be unpleasantly surprised.

SHORTLY AFTER the yeshiva program ended, Kibita began serving as a volunteer on Kibbutz Ketura while waiting for his aliyah request to be approved.

It wouldn’t be. In the spring of 2018, he was told not only that his application had been rejected, but that he had to leave Israel at once of his own volition or face deportation.

It was then that his legal battle began. The Israel Religious Action Center took up his case, and secured a stay of the expulsion order. For the next two-and-a-half years, foot-dragging by the Interior Ministry would delay his case being heard, though due to the intervention of the court he was permitted to remain in Israel pending a final resolution of his appeal.

Which brings us to the present. Several days ago, the government finally submitted its concluding arguments to the court, contending that a conversion abroad is valid only if it takes place in a recognized Jewish community, and ruling that the Abayudaya did not qualify as such. In doing so, it rejected the agency’s determination otherwise, concomitantly challenging that body’s authority to act in this regard altogether.

At the core of its position, the state asserted that a collective consisting of individuals not Jewish at birth could never constitute a recognized Jewish community. Consequently, any conversion taking place within that group – past, present, or future – would never bestow upon the “so-called convert” the right to live in Israel, regardless of the stream of Judaism under whose auspices the Rabbinical Court might convene.

Which is why Yosef Kibita’s hearing is not his alone. The argument of the Interior Ministry would negate the Jewish identity of thousands of individuals living in dozens of communities around the world who have undergone conversions and maintain a traditional Jewish lifestyle – more often than not identifying with the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox worlds rather than with the liberal streams of Judaism.

Kibita’s lawyer, Nicole Maor, argues that the government’s case is fundamentally flawed. She references a document issued by the Population and Immigration Authority establishing the criteria for granting immigrant status on the basis of a conversion abroad. In it, a “recognized community” is described as one that is “long established, active, with a shared and acknowledged Jewish identity, that has a permanent framework for administration of the community and that is affiliated with one of the established streams of world Jewry and acknowledged as such by its authoritative institutions; and/or recognized by the Jewish Agency.” Previous rulings of the Supreme Court upheld these criteria, and, Maor notes, the Abayudaya fulfill all of them – the “and” as well as the “or.”

Rabbi Andy Sacks, director of the Masorti Rabbinical Assembly in Israel and one of the rabbis who presided over the initial Abayudaya conversions, also notes that the Chief Rabbinate has itself acted in complete contravention to the state’s argument.

Several years ago, a number of rabbis traveled to India under its patronage in order to convert dozens of the Bnei Menashe, a tribe alleging Jewish ancestry and practicing Orthodox Judaism, but not Jews from birth.

“Why,” asks Sacks, “should conversions of the Bnei Menashe be accepted, but those of the Abayudaya disallowed?”

Maor cites additional inconsistencies in the state’s arguments. In addition to its refusal to acknowledge the Abayudaya as a recognized Jewish community, the government also contends that even if it were, Kibita’s conversion would not be valid, because it failed to meet acceptable standards. Acceptable to whom?

While regulations regarding state recognition of conversions generally require that candidates submit a record of both the number of hours and subjects they studied, it is not specified what a minimum course of preparation entails, seemingly allowing the Interior Ministry to disallow any conversion it so chooses.

The safeguard against such arbitrary rejections is meant to be the mandate granted by Israel to the recognized streams of Judaism to certify the conversions taking place under their auspices.

In rejecting Kibita, thereby denying the license of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly to set its own standards, the government would be abrogating its own protocols. It would also be ignoring its own directive that if 10 years have elapsed between a conversion and an application for aliyah, the said requirement is waived, as there is no longer any suspicion that the individual entered the Jewish faith for the purpose of abusing the Law of Return.

IT DIDN’T take a Conservative Jew from Africa to expose the disparagement with which the Interior Ministry, and the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party which controls it, regard Diaspora Jewry. Over the years, there have been frequent revelations of the existence of a “blacklist” of even Orthodox rabbis whose authority the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize and the subsequent retroactive nullification of conversions they have performed. The difference now, however, is that should the Supreme Court rule in favor of the state over Kibita, this blatant discrimination will be sanctioned with legal precedent.

No less worrying is that such a decision will signal to Jews around the world that Israel, which touts itself as the nation-state of the entire Jewish people, in reality is not.

To date, those disaffected by Israeli policy concerning such matters as prayer at the Western Wall and legal conventions controlling marriage and divorce could find comfort in holding out for democratically effected change. A disqualification by the Supreme Court of Kibita’s aliyah application would enshrine the cause of their disillusionment in the legal lexicon of what has become of the Zionist dream.

Refusing to accept such an eventuality, Jews from across the religious spectrum are rallying on behalf of the Abayudaya, some joining together to establish Achva: The Partnership for Abayudaya Rights.

One of its founders is Michael Chernick, an Orthodox rabbi, who bemoans the obtuseness of the Israeli government in refusing to grant even study visas to members of the Abayudaya, “a community of observant Conservative and Orthodox Jews who see Israel as the fountainhead of Jewish education and the place to deepen one’s Jewish identity.” He simply cannot accept “a ministry of the Jewish state refusing the privilege of learning Torat Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael to those whose Jewish status is recognized by the Jewish Agency.”

This is of paramount importance also for Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, an Abayudayan rabbi ordained by the Conservative movement.

“It’s not only about the right to make aliyah,” he tells me, remarking that even if allowed to, he doesn’t believe large numbers of his community would. “But there are hundreds of us who want to be able to get on a plane and spend time there without being questioned about our Judaism. Not being able to visit and study in Israel, as Jews around the world are able to, we feel the rejection and pain of not being accepted.”

This widespread sentiment has not extinguished an even more pervasive optimism. Avram Mukiibi, president of the newly established Zionist Federation of Uganda and head of the local chapter of Marom, the Masorti Movement’s young adult division, says: “I’m very hopeful. I still have a feeling that even if the court decides against us, we will find another way to move forward. We’ve come too far to throw our hope in the dust. I’m also encouraged by the support we’re getting from Jews of every kind around the world. It shows that what we’re up against affects not only the Abayudaya but all Jews in the Diaspora.”

His is an expression of faith that the court will decide in favor of the pride that the Abayudaya feel for their Judaism over the prejudice with which they have had to contend.

The author has recently completed a term as deputy chairman of the Jewish Agency executive, during which time he worked extensively with developing Jewish communities around the world. The perspectives shared herein are entirely his own.

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