Israel’s Interior Ministry has told the country’s Supreme Court that it intends to block the emigration of Ugandan Jews even though the American sponsors of the small East African Jewish community say the Ugandans show a “vibrancy of Jewish life” and “a deep love of Israel and the Jewish people.”
Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, whose outfit supports the emigration of Ugandan Jews, said he saw the intention of the ministry “as a profound insult to the Conservative movement.”
The case being heard at the court was brought by Kibita Yosef, a Ugandan Jew in Israel whose citizenship and residency status are in question. Yosef converted to Judaism in 2008 and under the Law of Return passed 70 years ago, he was expected to be granted a stay in Israel. The law allows for all Jews, even those proselytized, to resettle in Israel.
But the Interior Ministry, which is in-charge of resettling Jews, is choosing to carry out its execution in a new way that looks sternly upon “emerging” Jewish communities around the world. Critics have said the intention to block Ugandan Jews carries racial, religious and political implications.
A small Jewish community of around 3,000 and located near the town of Mbale in eastern Uganda, the Abayudaya, as they are known, celebrated 100 years of its founding two years ago. Somewhere in 1917, its founder, Semei Kakungulu, embraced Judaism after reading a Bible. They began facing persecution in the 1970s under the regime of former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin who outlawed the community and is known to have masterminded the killings of Ugandan Jews.
Israel has not been as stringent on Ethiopian Jews who constitute the biggest bloc of African Jews in the Middle Eastern country. Recently, over 300 Ethiopian Jews were reunited with their families in Israel on in a move that Jerusalem hoped marked the end to decades of criticisms on how it has treated the issue of families split between that country and Ethiopia.
Most of the Abayudaya were converted between 2002 and 2008 under the auspices of rabbis in the United States’ conservative movement. But Israel’s orthodox chief rabbinate refuses to recognize them as Jews. If we are to learn anything at all from the fight for the Israeli government’s recognition for Ethiopian Jews, that took decades but was accelerated partly due to the crisis in Ethiopia in the mid-1970s.
The executive director of human rights organization Tu’rah, Jill Jacobs, has called the decision to bar Ugandan Jews “pure racism”.
“I’m very proud that the Conservative Movement, to which I belong, has forged a strong relationship w/this community, including ordaining a rabbi & fighting for community’s rights in Israel,” she added in a tweet.
Proponents of Jacobs’ accusations will point to existing difficulties facing Ethiopian Jews, many of whom have alleged racial discrimination and are the poorest group in the country.
Last year, Israel’s National Labor Court ruled that 16 Israeli rabbis, originally from Ethiopia, are owed compensation based on discrimination in the allocation of resources by state and local religious councils. The 12-year legal battle ended in a landmark ruling for the rabbis whose fight became a special example of the barriers endemic in Israeli society for African Jews.
The barrier to Ugandan Jews is also seen as a clash between the conservative movement which is opened to gradual changes in Judaism and the orthodox movement that upholds traditional and ultra-conservative positions. The head of Israel’s Interior Ministry, Aryeh Deri, is from the orthodox Shas religious political party.