A unique African community who have practiced Judaism for a century despite persecution say they deserve the right to be recognized as Jews by Israel
- A Ugandan Jew, Yosef Kibita, has had his request to immigrate to Israel rejected.
- Israel’s Supreme Court has said that his conversion did not occur in a “recognized” community.
- Uganda’s chief rabbi wants the Abuyudaya community to be recognized and treated fairly.
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A legal battle is underway in Israel to formally recognize a unique community of around 2,000 Jews living in Uganda’s East African nation.
At the heart of the dispute is a case involving Yosef Kibita.
Kibita, who has lived in Israel for two years, is seeking Israeli citizenship to avoid deportation. Israel’s Interior Ministry has denied him the right to ‘make aliyah’ — the process of Jews immigrating to Israel.
The decision, backed by Israel’s Supreme Court on Thursday, was made because his conversion to Judaism did not occur in a “recognized” community.
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Kibita filed to settle in Israel under the ‘Law of Return,’ reported the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
The Law of Return, which was passed in 1950, gives Jews the right to gain Israeli citizenship across the world. It was updated in 1970 to include converts to Judaism.
Although Kibita converted to Judaism in 2008, the Supreme Court disputes that his conversion took place under the auspices of a formally recognized community.
The Jewish Agency for Israel, an international nonprofit that works with the Israeli government to facilitate immigration, only recognized the Ugandan community in 2009 — a year after Kibita’s conversion.
On Monday, lawyers from the Legal Aid Center for Olim will petition an Israeli district court to grant citizenship to a Jewish convert from a Guatemalan community. The lawyers hope that a victory, in this case, could strengthen Kibita’s case.
Who are the Abayudaya community?
The Abayudaya, which literally translates as ‘People of Judah,’ is a community of 2,000 Ugandans who practice conservative Judaism.
They eat kosher food, observe the Jewish sabbath, and attend synagogue regularly.
They owe their introduction to the religion to a historic Ugandan military leader Semei Kakungulu, more than a century ago.
Kakungulu was originally converted to Christianity by British missionaries. However, after disagreements with colonial forces, he joined a sect — the Bamalaki — that followed a belief system that combined Christianity and Judaism elements.
In 1919, having spent years studying the Bible, Kakungulu was inspired by the Old Testament. He insisted on being circumcised, a practice central to the Jewish religion.
Kakungulu circumcised himself and his sons, then created a separate sect. The sect was known as the Kibina Kya Bayudaya Abesiga Katonda (the Community of Jews who trust in the Lord).
In the 1920s, a European Jew visited the community and taught them about Jewish rituals, kosher food, and traditions. The community took these practices to heart and have followed them ever since.
In the 1970s, they faced persecution by President Idi Amin. Known as the ‘Butcher of Uganda,’ Amin forbade the Abayudaya from practicing, destroyed synagogues, and forced many to convert to other religions.
Around 300 Abayudaya continued practicing, praying in secret, and the community has since grown.
Today, in Mbale, Eastern Region of Uganda, Stern Synagogue is the central hub for many of the Abuyadaya. There is also a chief rabbi who oversees the thriving community.
‘I am demanding an adjustment according to circumstances and a spirit of fairness’
Uganda’s chief rabbi and the Abayudaya’s leader, Gershom Sizomu, told Insider that the situation with Yosef Kibita is complex but upsetting.
He concedes that the court view that Kibita’s conversion as illegitimate because it took place before the community was officially recognized is legally sound.
Sizomu, however, does not believe that the technicality is fair.
“We have the letter of the law,” Sizomu told Insider. “But here, I am demanding an adjustment according to circumstances and a spirit of fairness.”
“Kibita is not a complete stranger,” he continued. “He comes from a community that is recognized, irrespective of whether his conversion came before or after that.”
The rabbi, who is also a member of Uganda’s Parliament, feels let down by Israel.
“We have a long history of Judaism in Uganda. We have endured a lot of hardship, but we have never given up on our religion,” Sizomu said. “That alone should show how sincere we are.”
“That we are not being treated right, as other communities might be, is upsetting,” he added.
‘The Interior Minister is very, very wary of massive immigration from developing countries’
Kibita’s lawyer believes that the Interior Ministry might have nefarious reasons for ruling against the Ugandan’s petition to make aliyah.
“The elephant in the room is that the Interior Ministry might have taken this position because of the fact that the Abayudaya community is a congregation in Africa,” Nicole Maor told Insider. “The ministry has always claimed, on the record, that they don’t distinguish between people on the color of their skin.
“But we know that they are very, very wary of massive immigration from developing countries,” she added.
Hen Mazzig, a senior fellow at the Tel Aviv Institute, is one of the Israelis who believes the decision is rooted in prejudice.
He told Insider: “The Interior Ministry argues that the Abayudaya conversions are not valid because they had to be done as part of an established Jewish community. But who gets to decide which Jewish communities are established?”
He continued: “Creating a theo-political roadblock against this vibrant 2,000+ Jewish community emigrating to Israel is rooted in bigotry. The situation is heartbreaking and Israel is better than this.”
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