Last week a Jewish man from Kenya was denied entry to Israel, held overnight in jail, and deported the next morning to Ethiopia, despite having been issued a tourist visa by the Israeli Consulate in Nairobi.
Yehudah Kimani, 31, is a leader of the 50-member Kehilat Kasuku, a small group of families in Kenya’s rural highlands who converted to mainstream Judaism in the Conservative movement. After spending the summer of 2016 in Los Angeles studying at the Brandeis Collegiate Institute, a Jerusalem Masorti (Conservative) synagogue invited him to study at the movement’s yeshiva for this year’s winter term.
Since members of the Conservative movement have reported recurrent acts of discrimination on the part of the Shas-controlled Interior Ministry, Kimani’s first visa application made sure to include a bank guarantee for the duration of his stay in the country that covered all of his costs.
The Interior Ministry, however, summarily denied his visa request. He reapplied in November and the Nairobi consulate reissued his visa after confirming his acceptance to study at the Conservative yeshiva. Apparently Kimani had two strikes against him in the shortsighted eyes of our Interior Ministry: He is a Conservative Jew and black.
The ministry tried to deflect charges of racism and religious discrimination by claiming that Kimani’s second visa application had been “fraudulently obtained,” since he had not complied with a fictitious regulation requiring him to note that his first application had been rejected. A ministry bureaucrat stated there was “a concern he would remain [illegally]” in the country after his visa expired.
“There is no question that it is about the color of his skin,” Rabbi Andy Sacks, director of the Masorti Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, told The Jerusalem Post. “He’s a black person from Africa; that’s the only reason to suspect he will want to stay illegally. We’ve seen it with visa applicants from Venezuela, Uganda and now Kenya and for many people of color. It’s outrageous.”
The Masorti Movement said it would demand an apology from the Interior Ministry and seek damages for Kimani’s aborted trip.
Justin Philips, a retired judge who sits on the board of the Conservative Movement’s Fuchsberg Center, denies the ministry’s claim of fraudulent representation. “There was no question on the visa form asking for that, and if they want that information they should ask for it,” said Philips. “This is naked racism,” he added. “They don’t like non-Orthodox Jews and they don’t like black Jews. We have a lot of problems to get visas for Conservative Jews.”
By “they,” the judge apparently refers to two coalition partners, Shas and United Torah Judaism, whose leaders regularly disparage non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and are on record denying the Jewishness of Reform Jews.
Both parties have held the coalition hostage in retracting the decision for an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall and have placed stumbling blocks in the way of compromise on the issue of conversion, but this latest act of discrimination combines militant ultra-Orthodoxy with blatant racism.
A similar case of religious extremism occurred recently over the deportation of the Swedish daughter of a Holocaust survivor seeking to make aliya. The Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Bureau denied her application under the Law of Return on the grounds that she was baptized as a week-old baby. The Law of Return allows for anyone with a Jewish grandparent to make aliya, but excludes those who voluntarily changed their religion, apparently including a newborn.
Rebecca Floer, 64, had been working as a psychologist in northern Israel on a renewed tourist visa for the past three years after rediscovering her Jewish heritage. Dividing her time with her native Sweden became oppressive.
“My grandparents lived in Vienna in 1938 when the Nazis marched through the streets of Vienna. They tried to flee, and no country would accept them, and Israel did not exist. And now the Nazis are marching in Gothenburg, and Israel does not accept me,” said Floer.
While Floer is exiled to a Sweden where her apartment door has been daubed with swastikas, Kimani still looks to the future with optimism, no thanks to Israel. He hopes to establish a kosher safari company in Kenya as he completes the construction of his synagogue library.