Ugandan Jews Face Visa Obstacles in Israel

By Linda Gradstein | The Media Line

October 24, 2017

Photo: Christian Embassy

Conservative rabbi claims Interior Ministry ‘doesn’t want blacks here’

Members of the 2,000-strong Jewish community in Uganda are facing obstacles getting visas to study and live in Israel, even though the Jewish Agency (JA) deems them a “recognized community.” That status should make it easy for them to get student visas or the documentation they need to become Israeli citizens.

The Abuyudaya (which means son of Judah) split from Christianity in the early 20th century when its members began keeping Jewish laws and customs. In 2002, Rabbi Andrew Sacks, an Israeli Conservative rabbi, visited the community and converted 300 members to Judaism. They have all since been converted or found to have been born Jewish.

“They were all living as Jews with synagogues, Jewish schools, circumcision, and ritual baths, but they knew they were not Jewish according to halacha (Jewish law)”, Sacks, the director of the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel, told The Media Line. “The leader of their community went to a Conservative Rabbinical school in the United States and got ordained as a rabbi.”

That leader, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, is also the only Jew ever elected to serve in Uganda’s parliament. Today he heads the Jewish community, which recently opened a large synagogue in Nabagoye, in the east of the country.

The JA, the quasi-governmental body in charge of Jewish communities abroad and Jewish immigration to Israel, last year defined the Abayudaya as a “recognized community,” meaning its members are eligible to emigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. That law says that anyone with one Jewish grandparent or who is a member of a “recognized community” can immigrate to Israel. It is broader than the Jewish legal definition of who is Jew, namely those born to a Jewish mother or who have undergone an Orthodox conversion.

The JA’s definition should have been enough for students from the Ugandan community to get visas to study on programs sponsored by Masa, an arm of the Agency. But at least five students who converted before 2009, when the community was officially recognized, have been denied visas, along with a Masa scholarship, in some cases after already having arrived in Israel.

The students do not come with any other source of money, and in several cases members of the local Conservative movement have aided them financially or even offered housing.

The problem, Sacks says, originates in the Ministry of Interior, headed by Aryeh Deri of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. “I think it is largely based on race and the idea that ‘we don’t want blacks here,'” Sacks said. “It is also because they had Conservative conversions and not Orthodox ones.”

A spokesman for the ministry would say only that the issue “is pending a government decision.”

Some in Israel counter that if the government actually promoted racist policies it would not have brought Ethiopian Jews to Israel, a community which today numbers more than 125,000. Sacks said the experience with Ethiopian Jews, in which many who were Jewish tried to bring family members who were not, is partly behind the issue.

The Conservative movement in Israel has launched a campaign in the US to support Ugandan Jews and the JA is trying to work behind the scenes to arrange a compromise.

“There are existing regulations that make it possible for the Jewish Agency to override decisions of the Ministry of the Interior,” David Breakstone, the deputy chairman of the JA executive told The Media Line. “I don’t believe the way the regulations are currently being applied match the intent with which they were established and I am hopeful that a dialogue between the various parties to this matter will resolve the issue.”

Breakstone admitted that several of the students were caught in a “twilight zone” and hoped there would be a solution soon.

The controversy comes amid growing tensions between Israel and US Jews over other religious matters. Earlier this year, the government reneged on a promise to provide an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, angering many American Jews who identify as Conservative or Reform.



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