Let My People Go

The Interior Ministry’s ruling means that members of the Abayudaya community cannot make aliyah.
February 3, 2021
Visiting and local Rabbis make an Abayudaya prayer in Putti village (Photo by Moshe Cohen/Wikimedia Commons)

Fifteen years ago, I spent a year studying in Israel. Gershom Sizomu was my chavruta — my study partner. We laughed together, we ate together, we danced together, we cried together, we mourned together. We became rabbis together.

Gershom was enrolled at a rabbinical seminary in Los Angeles, and I in New York City, but Jerusalem brought us together. Our initial divide was far greater than higher education on parallel coasts of the United States. I was a 20-something from New Jersey. Gershom was already a leader of the Abayudaya Jewish community of Uganda — a homegrown, century-old African Jewish community with a volatile history of persecution and rejection. But Gershom’s desire to enhance his studies and bring back deeper Jewish learning to his community brought him to our shared table of discourse at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in the Neve Granot neighborhood of Jerusalem.

I remember when we studied the Talmudic tractate of Shabbat with great detail. Gershom was astounded that I had never experienced separating the wheat from the chaff or slaughtering or milking an animal. In fact, he often laughed at how different our upbringings were — not judging me, but allowing me to learn from him (and he from me).

Gershom taught me about his nineteenth-century ancestor, Semei Kakungulu, and shared with me the entirety of his Jewish community’s history through Ugandan President Idi Amin’s tyrannical reign. I was thrilled to learn of this incredible Jewish community, which evolved perhaps the same way our biblical ancestors and early rabbinic Judaism evolved.

Gershom and I became brothers, and following the completion of his rabbinical studies in Los Angeles, Gershom returned home to serve as the first native-born Black rabbi in Sub-Saharan Africa — the first chief rabbi of Uganda. One of his initial acts was to conduct an official conversion ceremony for 250 people at the village of Nabogoya, with converts coming from all over Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.

Gershom has spent numerous shabbatot here in the Twin Cities, bringing the music, culture and brotherhood of the Abayudaya Jewish community to our Minnesotan communities. He is recognized not only as a communal Jewish leader but also as a leader who brings people of all faiths together, having received his BA from the Islamic University in Uganda and serving as a Member of Parliament for the past five years.

Our friendship alone would provide for a lovely story of brothers in the study of Torah — but that is not why I share this with the world today. I share this story because I am distressed and mourning collective Jewish peoplehood.

I celebrated several years ago when the Jewish Agency for Israel formally recognized the Jewish status of Gershom’s community — I called him elated and overjoyed. But then, last week, in response to a member of the community’s request to immigrate to Israel, Israel’s Interior Ministry announced that they do not consider the Abayudaya as a “recognized Jewish community” and do not honor any of the non-Orthodox conversions in which its members have participated. They were overturning the Jewish Agency’s recognition.

I have not yet called Gershom. Because I am ashamed. I am grief-stricken. And I am angry. The response is solidly grounded in either racism or Ultra-Orthodox hegemony — or, sadly, both. This ruling means that members of the Abayudaya community cannot make aliyah — immigrate to Israel — under the Law of Return.

In 1950, Israel’s Knesset passed this extraordinary law, defining for generations to come one of Israel’s chief goals, that “every Jew has the right to immigrate to this country.” And yet now the doors are closed, part of a larger winnowing of pluralism in Israel.

For nearly thirty years, the Ultra-Orthodox have held disproportionate influence within the government even though they only have about 10-15% of Knesset mandates. In fact, Ultra-Orthodox parties have controlled the Interior Ministry for years, which allows them to oversee the rabbinate, determining policies around Jewish lifecycle events, such as marriages, funerals/burials, conversions and divorce. Ultra-Orthodox hegemony over the recognition of conversion (and immigration) has led even to bitter infighting within the Orthodox community, with Orthodox rabbis in Israel not recognizing Diaspora Orthodox conversions, not recognizing those in Israel altogether and, of course, calling into question the conversions of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist denominations.

The Law of Return has indeed, in many cases, fulfilled the Jewish utopian ideal of a Return to Zion — but in many cases, because of this Orthodox hegemony, it has failed. The rejection of Abayudaya Jews is just the latest example.

The rejection of Abayudaya Jews is just the latest example of how the Law of Return has failed to fulfill the Jewish utopian ideal of a Return to Zion.

I remember when Gershom described to me his memories of the heroic raid on Entebbe Airport. On July 4, 1976, Israeli commandos carried out Operation Thunderbolt, a daring hostage rescue mission. The unit’s leader was the team’s sole casualty — Yonatan Netanyahu, brother of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Even though Israel was unaware at the time of Gershom’s fledgling, persecuted Jewish community, decades later, Gershom worked to honor Yoni’s memory. And indeed, Israel committed to Israeli-sub-Saharan African bilateral relations in 2016.

Certainly, Israel has gone to great lengths to rescue Jews from Africa. In 1991, Minnesota Senator Rudy Boschwitz was President George H.W. Bush’s emissary to Ethiopia. His work led to Operation Solomon, which rescued and airlifted the Ethiopian Jewish community to Israel.

But such openness seems reversed today, as the Israeli government focuses less on what it means to build and embrace a global Jewish community and more on how to define Jewishness. To be clear: the Abayudaya have no desire, nor any need, to be “rescued.” Nor do they need anyone else to affirm their Judaism or confine it to categories they do not use, such as denominations. Their community is burgeoning and inspiring the growth of other Jewish communities across the African continent. But those Ugandan Jews who dream about immigrating to their adopted ancestral homeland should have an opportunity to do so.

Our rabbis teach us that the collective fate of all Jews is intertwined, that we are responsible for one another — kol yisrael aravim zeh lazeh. Israel’s Interior Ministry’s decisions this past week suggest otherwise.

On February 3, Israel’s High Court of Justice will hear the full case, their decision serving as the final determination for Abayudaya Jews. Indeed, this decision will have much broader consequences for the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.

Often the feedback from those in Israel to those of us “outside” is if you really want to weigh in on the “situation” here, then move here. Some are trying to — so it is high time to let them.

Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky is a senior rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.

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