Much has been said recently about fraying relations between Israel and the Diaspora, with tension centered around several key issues connected to Israel’s democratic nature. Those who are critical of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank often express the concern that the occupation is unacceptable in a just and democratic society, and engage in activism in order to change the status quo. The push back to that point of view is often that those who do not live in Israel, and thus do not assume the risks of living in a dangerous region, should not criticize the political decisions made by Israelis, who do assume those risks.
The tension between Israel and North American Jewry also centers around the issue of religious pluralism and the power of the state sanctioned and funded Chief Rabbinate to impose religious law on Israeli society. If Israel is the spiritual homeland of the Jewish people from around the world, then all Jews, no matter where they live, should have a stake in how Judaism is lived and expressed in our common homeland. Jews who make their home in New Jersey, wherever they happen to be on the denominational spectrum, have a right to have their religious ideology recognized and respected in the State of Israel. The current situation, which gives undue power to the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate to oversee marriage, conversion, divorce and kashrut, stifles the very idea of religious pluralism, tolerance and choice. One cannot argue that only those who live in Israel should be entitled to shape religious policy in the Jewish state, even if that policy is government driven and funded with taxpayer money. All Jews, wherever they live, have a stake in how Judaism is lived and expressed in Israel. Conservative rabbis in Israel should have the right to officiate at weddings and divorces, and welcome Jews-by-Choice as they see fit. That right should not be eclipsed by state empowered rabbis, acting with hubris, to exclude and dismiss those who hold different views than they do. It’s simply not the Jewish way.
A case in point should draw our attention and even outrage. It concerns Yosef Kibita, a Ugandan Jew who belongs to the Abayudaya Jewish community which numbers over 2,000 members and began practicing Judaism about 100 years ago. They are a formally recognized group, in their case embraced by the worldwide Conservative-Masorti movement, which is a standard that must be met to qualify for the Law of Return, a provision that enables any Jew to claim immediate citizenship in the State of Israel. Converts are eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return regardless of what movement they are affiliated with, provided they come from a recognized Jewish community. Yosef Kibita was converted by a Conservative Rabbi and is now in Israel under a tourist visa. He has been informed by the Ministry of the Interior that he must leave the country by June 14 or risk deportation, which has asserted that his conversion does not meet the standards necessary to satisfy the Law of Return.
The refusal of the Interior Ministry to approve Mr. Kibita’s application for citizenship under the Law of Return is an outrage. Motivating Rabbi Aryeh Deri, Minister of the Interior, and all those under him, is the narrow view that only their understanding of what constitutes a proper conversion is acceptable. The interior minister declared the Jewish community of Abayudaya to be unrecognized as belonging to the Jewish people. In so doing, he has dismissed out of hand the standing and legitimacy of Conservative rabbis.
Could there be any other motivation behind this blatant refusal to grant citizenship to Yosef Kibita? There is some reason to believe that racism exists in Israel, as it does in the United States, and that it is racism that lurks behind the decision to bar Ugandan Jews from becoming citizens of Israel. Ethiopian Jews who immigrated to Israel a generation ago faced terrible and humiliating racism from “established” Israelis, and many Sephardic Jews have been ostracized economically and socially for generations. It’s not pleasant to recognize and admit it, but it’s an unavoidable conclusion that Yosef Kibita is being refused citizenship because he is an African with dark skin.
What can we, who live in New Jersey, do in response to the Israeli government’s rejection of a Jewish community from Africa? How can we stand up for the legitimacy of our movement and understanding of Judaism? And how can we oppose the ugliness of racism, even if it is to be found in our beloved Israel?
We can support the efforts of the Masorti Movement to petition this terrible decision in Israel’s Supreme Court. A fund has been set up to cover the legal costs. I encourage you to donate by clicking here or by sending a check, with the word “Abayudaya” on it, to:
475 Riverside Dr, Suite 832
New York, New York 10115
Israel is our spiritual homeland, and we have a right, even a duty, to do what we can to ensure that our way of life is recognized and respected, even from all the way across the world.
RABBI MARK COOPER