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Israel Refuses to Officially Recognize 2,000 Ugandan Jews as Jewish — Who Has the Right to Decide?

The Israeli government has rejected a request from the Abayudaya community in Uganda to immigrate to the country, refusing to recognize the group as Jews. The decision raises questions about the criteria for deciding who is Jewish in Israel, and the larger issue of racism against African people in that country. (photo:

The Israeli government has rejected a request from a Ugandan community of Jews to immigrate to the country and refused to recognize the group as Jews. This rejection of the African Jews raises issues of racism against Black people in Israel, the criteria for being accepted as a Jew, and who decides.

The Israeli Interior Ministry rejected a request for recognition by a member of the Abayudaya community, whose 2,000 members live in Uganda, as Haaretz reported. Kibita Yosef, who filed the application, has been living in Israel in a kibbutz affiliated with the Conservative movement for the past year. The Abayudaya, who have been practicing Judaism for a century, were officially converted to Judaism by the Conservative movement, one of the major denominations of Judaism, only in recent years. Under Israel’s Law of Return, anyone who is married to a Jew, has Jewish grandparents and those who convert to Judaism are allowed to immigrate to Israel if they come from a recognized Jewish community. The Jewish Agency for Israel recognizes the Abayudaya as Jewish, but the ministry, the final arbiter of such matters, does not.

The ministry said Yosef must leave the country by June 14 or he faces deportation. The Conservative movement condemned the decision, with Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, who leads its international Rabbinical Assembly, saying they were “shocked and extremely outraged” at the “unlawful” decision. “This is completely inconsistent with more than two decades of Israeli practice of Conservative converts — who are by the way halakhically [in accordance with Jewish law] converted to Judaism under our auspices — who had been recognized as Jewish for the purposes of the Law of Return,” she said, adding that the decision jeopardizes the future of conversions in Israel, not only Conservative converts, but Reform and Orthodox as well. The Orthodox Chief Rabbinate controls Jewish conversion, marriage, divorce and burial in Israel, but not immigration matters. Nearly 1 million people who emigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union were eligible as Jews under the Law of Return and became Israeli citizens, accounting for 15 percent of Israel’s population. Yet, one quarter were not considered Jewish under Jewish law, which requires that one is born to a Jewish mother or undergoes an Orthodox conversion.

Israeli citizens of Palestinian Arab descent are second- or third-class citizens because they are not Jewish and the Law of Return does not apply to them. Meanwhile, Palestinians living under military occupation without self-determination and their own state are non-citizens and suffer from racial segregation, discrimination and brutality, and Palestinian refugees who were removed from their land are unable to return. Even Palestinians married to Israelis are barred from living in Israel and becoming citizens. This week, the Israeli Knesset blocked legislation whose purpose was “to define Israel as a democratic and multi-cultural state that guarantees complete civil, cultural, and national equality to all of its citizens” — Jewish and Arab.

The difficulties Ugandan Jews have faced in immigrating to Israel have carried with them accusations of anti-Black racism. Last December, a member of a Jewish community in Kenya who arrived in Israel to study at a Conservative yeshiva in Jerusalem was detained at the airport and deported to Ethiopia. In addition, the Ministry of Interior has taken advantage of a technicality in denying visa requests to study or immigrate to Israel from Ugandan Jews who converted before 2009, that is, before the Abayudaya were recognized as a Jewish community. “It would appear that a combination of racial prejudice, a bias against non-Orthodox conversion, a failure to issue timely decisions as demanded by the criteria of the Interior Ministry, and a structure where the responsibility to resolve the issues relating to immigration and the issuing of student visas is passed from one person to the next, has, sadly, left these Jews seeking to live or study in Israel, in limbo,” said Rabbi Andy Sacks, director of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement in Israel. The Conservative movement will petition Israel’s High Court of Justice, the nation’s version of the Supreme Court.

Ethiopian Israelis, who are Jewish, and African migrants, who are not, face systemic racial discrimination in Israel. Although they are an ancient population, Ethiopian Jews find their Jewishness questioned, are racially stereotyped as lazy, and face poverty and discrimination in housing, education and employment. These Black Israelis protest against the police brutality they experience, including the case of an Israeli solider of Ethiopian descent who was beaten by police. Israeli health officials subjected Ethiopian immigrants women to the contraceptive Depo Provera without their consent in an alleged attempt to lower the Black birth rate. The immigration of thousands of Ethiopians to Israel has been delayed amid charges of racism, and Ethiopian Jews in Addis Ababa threatened a hunger strike if they were denied reunification with their families in Israel.

In March, one of Israel’s chief rabbis called Black people “monkeys,” and African migrants and asylum seekers fleeing countries such as Eritrea and Sudan are called “infiltrators” who threaten the identity of the Jewish state. The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who has regarded Africans as a greater threat than terrorists and touts Israel’s wall on the Egyptian border as keeping them out — gave thousands of African “infiltrators” a choice of leaving the country or facing indefinite imprisonment.

It is within this context that Jews of African heritage may not be regarded as Jews in Israel, or perhaps not as Jewish as others.

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