Yosef Kibita at Kibbutz Ketura in southern Israel, where he currently resides. (Courtesy)

Israeli Supreme Court to Hear Abudaya Immigration Case

Justices’ decision on Ugandan convert could have broader implications for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism

On May 5, Ugandan Yosef Kibita will appear before Israel’s Supreme Court, which will decide his fate: deportation back to Uganda or Israeli citizenship. What’s at stake, though, is not just recognition for his Abudaya Jewish community, but whether the Israeli government will recognize all conversions of non-Orthodox sects of Judaism.

Kibita’s application for aliya, or immigration to Israel as a Jew, was rejected twice before his lawyer, Nicole Maor, took the case to the Supreme Court. The court issued an injunction on July 29 of last year to prevent his deportation, which was scheduled for the same day. It set a date to hear the case few weeks ago after failing to receive a response from the Interior Ministry in defense of its decision to deport him.

Kibita has been in Israel since 2017, coming under the auspices of Masa, an organization specializing in Israel-experience programs for young Jewish adults. While the Jewish Agency, which runs Masa, recognizes the Abudaya community as Jews, the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of aliya, does not.

“The first time I was in Jerusalem, my first Shabbat was so amazing,” Kibita told The Media Line. “On Friday evening, all shops are closed, and on Saturday, it’s quiet. That kind of observance contributed to my desire to stay in Israel.”

He contrasted this experience with the struggles his community faces in Uganda.

“Being Jewish in Uganda is hard because you work for non-Jews who make you work on Shabbat. This is something I did because I had to, not because I wanted to,” he said.

Kibita noted that Ugandans do not always feel comfortable speaking out about their work conditions in a country of 40 million people that struggles with high unemployment.

“It wasn’t until I started my own graphic design business that I was able to control my hours so I could [keep Shabbat],” he explained.

While The Media Line’s attempts to contact the Interior Ministry met with no response, Maor believes the ministry might argue that Kibita’s conversion occurred before his community was recognized by the Conservative Movement, thereby contending that the conversion did not take place in a “recognized Jewish community,” which the Israeli Supreme Court has held to be a determinating factor.

In representing Kibita, Maor, director of the Israel Reform movement’s Legal Aid Center for Olim, or new Jewish citizens, is also representing the Conservative Movement, explaining to The Media Line that Gershom Sizomu, the Abudaya community’s spiritual leader, converted in the United States in a “recognized [Jewish] community” before the rest of the Abudaya followed suit.

As such, Kibita identifies as a Conservative Jew, the movement his synagogue in Uganda is aligned with.

“I observe Shabbat and the holidays, I keep kashrut,” he said, referring to Jewish dietary laws.

Kibita is the first Abudaya to apply for aliya. He grew up in Nabugoye, located in eastern Uganda. Country-wide, the Abudaya now number some 3,000.

The community – Abudaya means “People of Judah” – was founded 100 years ago after its leader, Semei Kakungulu, a Christian missionary, began feeling a stronger connection to the Five Books of Moses. He then began practicing Judaism.

Kibita’s parents grew up as Christians but joined the movement while they were in their 40s, being neighbors with the group’s second spiritual leader. There are now eight Abudaya synagogues in Uganda, and the group also has members in neighboring Kenya. (There are different sects of Jews in African countries such as Nigeria and Ghana, but they are not related to the Abudaya.)

Maor told The Media Line that in order for a convert to make aliya, he or she must have studied in a Jewish community for a minimum, in most cases, of nine months prior to conversion, with exceptions made for some Orthodox communities. The convert then must be active in a recognized Jewish community for at least another nine months, including in Israel under a visa for temporary residents.

The gist of the case now before the Supreme Court is whether the post-conversion time spent in Israel is open to non-Orthodox converts.

According to Maor, these guidelines are implemented in order to discourage people from abusing the conversion process and converting for the sole purpose of moving to the Jewish state.

“Such abuse cannot be relevant in Yosef’s case,” she told The Media Line, explaining that he had been active in his community for over a decade.

Kibita told The Media Line: “As I grew up, I had a dream of living in Israel, in a Jewish nation…. I’ve had [that] dream since I was 15. I didn’t just wake up one day and say I want to live in Israel.”

The guidelines are problematic for Jews in emerging communities, which is where groups of people convert to Judaism en masse. This often occurs in areas where there are no Jewish communities at all – for example, in African countries such as Uganda.

Maor argues that the Interior Ministry’s rules on aliya are antiquated.

“The current criteria are relevant only for the traditional concept of conversion, where someone who is not Jewish joins an existing Jewish community and is converted within that framework,” she explained, “which does not always apply today.”

Michael Decker, a lawyer whose work includes aliya cases, told The Media Line that Kibita has a good chance of winning “if the case is based on the argument that Israel is presenting an impossible standard.”

The Abudaya, he explained, is the only Jewish community in Uganda.

“If it’s not an option to live in a Jewish community, then it’s an impossible requirement,” he said.

Decker proposed that the state stipulate an alternative requirement that Kibita could meet.

“An alternative solution could be granting a work visa for several years before changing his status to citizen,” he said.

Kibita feels that race also behind the Interior Ministry’s foot dragging.

“I think the issue is the look,” he told The Media Line.

He believes that one reason the ministry does not recognize the Abudaya community is the fear that its members will follow in his footsteps.

“[The officials] think that if they recognize me, the whole community will come to Israel. These people are not looking to come to Israel,” he stated emphatically.

He explained that Uganda’s economy was rooted in agriculture and that most of the Abudaya worked in that sector. Moving to Israel would mean giving up their crops and animals, which most would not be willing to do. He contends that they just want the ability to visit Israel and study on different programs, like members of other Jewish communities abroad.

Kibita also believes that his case has broader implications, not just for his own community, but for the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism as well, with his case challenging what many see as an Orthodox grip on Israeli government policies.

“The Orthodox movement thinks we don’t qualify to make aliya to Israel. This is the reason the [non-Orthodox] movements came in to protect my community and me by taking the Interior Ministry to the Supreme Court,” he said. “For the Conservative Movement, it means that their conversions would now be recognized despite the origin of the community.”

He acknowledges that he would have had an easier time if his conversion had been Orthodox.

“The Orthodox community doubts our conversions with the Conservative rabbis and our community,” he said. “We are all Jewish, but they don’t accept other streams, which is wrong because we are all under the same umbrella as Jews.”

While nervous about the Supreme Court hearing, Kibita feels good about his case.

“I have a positive mind that everything will be good because I am that kind of person. I only think that this is just a [delaying tactic], that the time is coming when they say you’re officially a citizen of Israel,” he said.

“If I am deported, I will not go with a bad picture of Israelis because of the actions of a few people,” he stated. “I’ll go back home, yes. But I’ll still have the love of Israel as a country, and it will increase even more my love for the nation.”

(Tara Kavaler is an intern in the Media Line’s Press and Policy Studies)

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