Ugandan ‘Jews’ not bothered by Israel rejection

Ugandan 'Jews' not bothered by Israel rejection
Members of Uganda's Abayudaya Jewish community outside a synagogue in Nabagoye. Courtesy Photo

The Jewish Community in Uganda, locally known as Abayudaya say they are unbothered by the Israeli government decision not to recognise them.

Last week, Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper carried a story indicating that Israel had ruled not to recognise the Ugandan Jewish community. The paper showed that Israeli’s Interior ministry had denied the first and only request of a Ugandan Jew, Kibitz Yosef, to immigrate to Israel and asked him to leave the county by June 14, 2018.

The same report quoted a government representative, saying the decision represents Israel’s stance on the Ugandan Jewish community, not just the applicant in question.

Joab Jonadab Keki, the chair of the council of elders of the Jewish Community in Uganda, says they are not bothered by the decision of the Israeli government not to recognise them because the only recognition they want is from God and not by any state on earth.

“For me, if I am recognised by God, I feel like that would be the best – not for me to be recognised by the state of Israel or any state. For me, I believe that God knows what I am. So if I get a call from God that you’re not recognised then that would be hard for me,” he said.

Asked what he thinks could have prompted the Israeli government to reject them, Keki pointed to their conversion by Conservative rabbis.

“The Jews of Uganda are denied in Israel because their conversion was not made by the Orthodox rabbis, it was made by Conservative rabbis. And in Israel, the recognised section is Orthodox and that might be the reason why the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda are not recognised.” he said.

He also explained that they don’t claim any blood lineage to Israel as it is believed by some people.

“We don’t claim of blood lineage, we’re just converts. So our conversion might have been illegal. That is what I know, but maybe they have other reasons.” he added.

However Rabbi Gershom Sizomu wrote on his Facebook page that “We have for the past 99 years been living as Jews in both form and practice and we are not about to change that.”

“The Jewish Agency has a partial mandate to determine who qualifies for Aliya [migration to Israel]. The interior ministry will have to justify their disagreement with the JA (Jewish Agency) recognition of the Abayudaya community. The question should be “who is a Jew” and not “who is Jewish enough” which the Interior ministry seems to be answering.”

The Jewish Agency for Israel recognized the community in 2016 seemingly opening a path for its members to immigrate to Israel. However the decision to give visas and citizenship lies with the Interior ministry.

The Abayudaya community, which is comprised of approximately 2000 members, is led by rabbi Gershom Wambedde, the Bungokho South member of parliament. The group members congregate every Saturday at Nabugoye hill in Namanyonyi sub-county in Mbale district.

The Abayudaaya community split from Christianity led by former colonial chief Semei Kakungulu in the 20th century and started identifying themselves as Jews. According to Hareetz, a rabbinical court sent to Uganda by the Conservative movement in 2002 formally converted most of the 1,500-strong community.