Agudat Israel

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AGUDAT ISRAEL (Heb. אֲגֻדַּת יִשְׂרָאֵל; "Union" or "Association" of Israel), world Jewish movement and political party seeking to preserve *Orthodoxy by adherence to *halakhah as the principle governing Jewish life and society. The ideal on which Jewish life should be modeled, in the view of Agudat Israel, is embodied in the social and religious institutions, the way of life and mores, that obtained in the Diaspora centers in Eastern and Central Europe in the 19th century. Its geographical and linguistic orientation made it automatically a purely Ashkenazi movement. The formation of an organized movement and political party to achieve these aims was itself an innovation. It was deemed necessary to present a viable counterforce to the advances made by assimilation and *Reform trends, and by *Zionism, the *Bund, and autonomism in Jewry. The establishment of a movement was discussed in 1909 by members of the German *neo-Orthodox group, but internal dissension in the Orthodox camp delayed it for three years. The final impetus was given when the tenth Zionist Congress decided to include cultural activities in its program, thereby recognizing a secular Jewish culture coexistent with the religious. Some members of the *Mizrachi party left the Zionist movement and joined the founders of Agudat Israel in an assembly held in May 1912 at Kattowitz in Upper Silesia.

Agudat Israel was constituted of three groups reflecting German neo-Orthodoxy, Hungarian Orthodoxy, and the Orthodox Jewries in Poland and Lithuania. These differed in political and social outlook, and in their opinions on cultural and organizational matters. A major divergence was the attitude to general European culture, society, and mores, which German Orthodoxy accepted. They also disagreed about whether to remain part of the main Jewish communal unit or to form separate Orthodox communities, and whether Jews should adopt the language of the state or adhere to *Yiddish. Their attitude toward Zionism was also a moot point.

Branches of Agudat Israel were established throughout the Ashkenazi world. Later it developed a youth movement (Ẓe'irei Agudat Israel) and a women's movement (Neshei Agudat Israel) in several countries. In Germany the "Ezra" youth movement was affiliated with it. The labor movement that formed within Agudat Israel separated from the parent body after disagreement on national, social, and religious issues (see *Po'alei Agudat Israel).

Within its ranks, Agudat Israel presented a spectrum of the attitudes which had influenced its creation. Particularly acute was the question of secular education. Some of the initiators of the Kattowitz conference tried to achieve a synthesis by formulating the principle: "The East shall give of its Torah learning to the West, and the West of its culture to the East," Western culture referring to the Western European, German-style, middle class type. This program was contested sharply by the Eastern European sector of Agudat Israel, who claimed that the only plausible basis for unity was maintenance of the status quo; each group should retain its way of life without change. This solution was contained in 18 clauses presented by Ḥayyim *Soloveichik, rabbi of Brest-Litovsk, as a condition of the participation of Polish and Lithuanian rabbis in the movement.

In regard to Zionism, Agudat Israel was created partly by groups who consistently opposed any attempt to revive Jewish nationhood in Ereẓ Israel through human agency. This they compared with a rebellious attempt by a disbanded regiment to resume its identity and hoist its banner without the express permission of its commander. The secularist elements in the nascent Hebrew culture added to Agudist resentment of Zionism. The *ẓaddikim of Eastern Europe (*Ḥasidism) regarded the influence of Zionism on the youth, and its negative revolutionary view of Diaspora existence (see *Galut), as religiously and socially destructive. Agudat Israel, therefore, maintained an ambivalent attitude toward renewed settlement in Ereẓ Israel, mainly because of its opposition to the Zionist movement. The Agudists resented the cooperation of religious with non-religious Jews within the Zionist movement on the basis of national unity, and unequivocally resisted the creation of a secular Jewish society in the Holy Land. Most Agudists considered that the way of life and culture gradually taking shape in the modern settlements in Ereẓ Israel, and propagated by Zionist educational and cultural activities, were subverting and destroying the only true Jewish way of life, upheld by religious families and communities in the Diaspora. The revival of Hebrew as a secular language seemed a sacrilege. With regard to sponsoring independent settlement in Ereẓ Israel, Agudists were already divided at the Kattowitz conference. Gradually, however, there emerged an opinion which after the *Holocaust apparently became the ideological basis of the organization in Israel. Ereẓ Israel should figure at the center of their program, which should, according to the Agudist leader Isaac *Breuer, aim at "uniting all the people of Israel under the rule of the Torah, in all aspects of political, economic, and spiritual life of the People of Israel in the Land of Israel."

The constituents of Agudat Israel were united in their aim to reestablish the authority of the prominent rabbis as the supreme institution of Jewry. This was a basic ideal, even if views were divided on the qualifications for leadership. German members considered secular academic qualifications acceptable, while Eastern European members demanded exclusively rabbinical qualifications. However, the agreement on the overall objective, to give expression to rabbinical authority on all matters, was reflected in the structure and central institutions of the new party, providing them with a unique pattern. The Agudat Israel central institutions as eventually established are, in order of formal importance:

(1) The Mo'ezet Gedolei ha-Torah ("Council of Torah Sages") in 1964 numbered 15 rabbis, all halakhic authorities, chosen on the basis of preeminence in talmudic learning. There are no defined criteria whereby its members are appointed. The number of members of the council is not predetermined. The council ensures, at least, in theory, that no activity will be undertaken by Agudat Israel without the consent of representatives of halakhic authority. The decisions of the Council of Torah Sages are accepted as legal verdicts, and the details of their consultations are secret. In 1964 the party declared officially: "The absolute obedience to the Council of Torah Sages gave Agudat Israel its specific character; even its opponents cannot avoid seeing that it is the only movement obedient absolutely to a supreme spiritual-Torah authority."

(2) Kenesiyyah ha-Gedolah ("Great Assembly"), "the highest (political) authority of the association," is composed of representatives of the local branches of Agudat Israel. Each 200 members may elect a representative to the Great Assembly. The first two Great Assemblies were held in Vienna in 1923 and 1929.

(3) Central World Council, or Presidium, is elected by the Great Assembly.

(4) The World Executive Committee. Before World War ii the strongest numerically and most active politically of the branches of Agudat Israel was in Poland. This was partly because of the support given to the movement by the ḥasidic ẓaddikim, in particular by the dynasty of Gur. Its local political aims and strength were reflected in the Jewish representation in the Polish Sejm (parliament) and the Agudist achievements in the elections. In 1919 Agudat Israel presented an independent slate, obtaining 92,293 votes, and returning two deputies to the Sejm. In 1922 it joined the "*Minorities bloc" with the Zionists (see *Gruenbaum, Yizḥak), returning six deputies (to the Sejm) and two senators. In 1928 it formed jointly with the Folkspartei and the merchants' organization the list of the "general Jewish national bloc"; this list, affiliated to the government list, obtained 183,998 votes, but no seat; the sole Agudat Israel deputy was returned from the government list. In 1930, on the same affiliation, it obtained 155,403 votes and one seat; an additional deputy was returned from the government list and one senator. In 1935 one deputy was returned and one appointed by the president of the state; in 1938 two deputies were returned. From 1933 onward some leaders, in particular J. Rosenheim in Germany and Harry Goodman in England, spoke in the name of Agudat Israel on many political issues.

The educational activities of Agudat Israel, conducted in many countries, concerned Orthodox schools and educational institutions. In Eastern Europe and Ereẓ Israel these were mainly talmud torah institutions and yeshivot. Later, it maintained the Bet Ya'akov network of elementary and high schools for girls. From 1953 the Agudat Israel party in Israel supervised schools of the "independent educational network," mainly talmud torah schools, which refused to be included in the general educational state network (see *Israel, Education). The educational enterprises of Agudat Israel are supported by the Keren ha-Torah ("Torah Fund"), founded by the movement.

After the rise to power of the Nazis in Germany the policy of Agudat Israel to Zionist settlement in Palestine changed fundamentally. The third Great Assembly, held at Marienbad in September 1937, was influenced by the pressure of political events in Palestine and the Diaspora. It discussed anew its attitude toward the eventual creation of a Jewish state and cooperation with the Zionists. Ideologically the strict stand prevailed: "A Jewish State can only be founded on the law of the Torah being recognized according to the Torah. A Jewish State not founded on and governed by Torah principles… cannot possibly call itself a Jewish state." But Agudat Israel took part in the St. James Palace Conference convened by the British government early in 1939. The Agudists coordinated their policies there with those of the Zionist Organization.

The numerical strength of Agudat Israel was seriously impaired by the Holocaust. By the end of World War ii the movement in Eastern Europe was all but annihilated. Most of its members were living in Ereẓ Israel, although some eventually immigrated to the United States and Western Europe. At the meeting of the Central World Council at Marienbad in August 1947, three centers for the movement were established: in Jerusalem, New York, and London.

Agudat Israel cooperated with the Zionist Organization in extending help to Diaspora Jewry. In practice it completely identified itself with the Zionist demand for the establishment of a Jewish state. Faithful to its basic principles, Agudat Israel, nevertheless, hesitated to recognize a secular Jewish state. However, on the strength of assurances given in a letter from the *Jewish Agency in June 1947 that the status quo in matters of religion would be observed, Agudat Israel was prepared to join the provisional council of the State of Israel. The fourth Great Assembly, held in Jerusalem in 1954, slightly altered the structure of the leadership, adding a World Executive. The next Great Assembly was also held in Israel in 1964. By that time Israeli representatives predominated in the Agudat Israel central institutions.

Agudat Israel in Ereẓ Israel

In Ereẓ Israel Agudat Israel was founded in 1912, but was inactive in public life until July 1919, when it was refounded in Jerusalem by members of the extreme Orthodox faction who were fanatically opposed to Zionism.

From 1919 until 1935, under the leadership of Moshe *Blau, Agudat Israel was completely identified with the ultra-Orthodox community. The principle guiding its activities was the achievement of complete social and political separation from the community organized under the auspices of the Zionist Movement. Agudat Israel fought bitterly to avoid being included in the officially recognized framework of the Jewish population of Palestine (*Keneset Yisrael) and obtained the right for those who so wished to cease to belong to it. They established separate rabbinical institutions, under the leadership of R. Hayyim Yosef *Sonnenfeld, which operated alongside the chief rabbinate headed by R. Abraham Isaac *Kook. Under the leadership of Jacob Israel de Haan (1922–24), Agudat Israel in Palestine attempted to achieve a modus vivendi with the Arab nationalists. However, this policy was discontinued after de Haan's assassination by the *Haganah, for subversive activities (1924). The relentless personal attack carried on by Agudat Israel against Rabbi Kook violently antagonized most of the growing yishuv. Other Agudist leaders, notably Isaac Breuer and Pinḥas *Kohn, managed through political action with the British authorities and the *League of Nations to prevent the unification of the Jewish community in Palestine within a single organizational framework. They thus obtained official recognition of the separation of the settlers of the "old yishuv," from the Keneset Yisrael, or organized Jewish community, and the competence of the *Va'ad Le'ummi ("National Council of the Jews for Palestine"). An attempt made by Agudat Israel to establish an agricultural settlement, Maḥaneh Israel, failed, mainly through lack of funds.

In 1935 the waves of emigration from Poland and Germany brought with them a different type of Agudat Israel member, who wanted to integrate economically and, to a certain extent, even politically into the new yishuv. This brought about a fundamental change in the structure, aims, and political activities of Agudat Israel in Palestine. In February 1935 a delegation arrived from the movement's headquarters in Poland, which reorganized the Agudat Israel administration in Palestine and established an agency to deal with matters of immigration and absorption and to negotiate with outside bodies. This agency represented immigrants from Poland and Germany, the members of the Orthodox workers' organization Po'alei Agudat Israel, and members from the old yishuv. The latter lost its dominance in the party, and the ultra-Orthodox community separated from Agudat Israel (see *Neturei Karta). Even before this, however (in the late 1920s), Agudat Israel had begun to cooperate with the official yishuv institutions, particularly in the municipalities. This tendency was now increased, mainly among Po'alei Agudat Israel.

The Peel Commission recommendations on the establishment of a Jewish state in part of Palestine (July 1937) caused a heated debate in Agudat Israel in Palestine. In principle, all rejected the idea of a secular Jewish state, but opinions were divided as to whether, in view of the existing plight of European Jewry, the idea should be rejected entirely, or whether, should such a state be established, its inhabitants might not return to the religious fold. Almost all the representatives of the old yishuv in Agudat Israel rejected the idea of a Jewish state. The representatives of the immigrants from Germany were divided in their opinions. The immigrants from Poland and Po'alei Agudat Israel tended to accept the idea of a Jewish State.

From 1940 to 1947 Agudat Israel cooperated with the national Jewish institutions, and also had a special committee to coordinate policies regarding the British authorities. In April 1940, the leader of Agudat Israel in Poland, the ḥasidic rabbi of the Gur dynasty (the "Gerer Rebbe "), and his son-in-law, Yiẓḥak Meir Levin, arrived in Palestine, and a new drive was launched for active participation in the life of the yishuv. The influence of the Polish immigrants in Agudat Israel greatly increased.

When Agudat Israel joined those who demanded a Jewish state, it received representation in the Provisional Council of State (Mo'eẓet ha-Medinah) which signed the Declaration of Independence.

Agudat Israel became a political party when the State of Israel was founded in 1948 and has been represented in all national and municipal bodies. Its leader, Rabbi Y.M. Levin, was minister of social welfare from 1949 to 1952. In all these institutions Agudat Israel fought for the observance of the halakhah in public life. Its principal campaigns have been in the field of education and, in 1953, after the educational "trends" were abolished and a unified school system established under the law of compulsory free education, Agudat Israel organized an independent school system of its own. It has also achieved the exemption of "religious" girls and of yeshivah students from military service.

Immigration after the establishment of the State of Israel resulted in increased power for the "Hungarian element" in Agudat Israel, and the "Polish hegemony" was somewhat weakened. About the time of the establishment of the State, friction increased between Agudat Israel and Po'alei Agudat Israel; at the elections to the Second Knesset the two parties submitted separate lists of candidates, and separated completely

1 Together with Po'alei Agudat Israel in Torah Religious Front.
2 Together with NRP.
3 Together with Degel ha-Torah in Yahadut ha-Torah.
2nd Knesset, 195113,9992.013
3rd Knesset, 1955¹39,8364.676
4th Knesset, 1959¹45,5594.706
5th Knesset, 196137,1783.694
6th Knesset, 196539,7953.304
7th Knesset, 196944,0023.224
8th Knesset, 1973²60,0123.8015
9th Knesset, 197758,6523.304
10th Knesset, 198172,1323.734
11th Knesset, 198436,0791.702
12th Knesset, 1988102,7144.505
13th Knesset, 1992³86,1673.304
14th Knesset, 1996³98,6573.304
15th Knesset, 1999³125,7413.705
16th Knesset, 2003³133,0874.305

in 1960, when Po'alei Agudat Israel joined the government.

In the elections to the First *Knesset in 1949, Agudat Israel and Po'alei Agudat Israel joined with the *Mizrachi and *Ha-Po'el ha-Mizrachi parties to form a "Religious Front." This front gained third place in the distribution of seats in the Knesset. For subsequent elections, see Table: Agudat Israel.

[Menachem Friedman]

In the United States

The world organization attempted to establish an American branch in 1922 but without success, though it did establish a youth section. Agudat Israel of America was actually founded in 1939. It received considerable impetus from the arrival in the U.S. in 1941 of R. Aaron *Kotler, who was a member of the supreme rabbinical council of the world organization. He enjoyed a preeminent position among Orthodox rabbis and was devoted to the ideal of establishing institutions for exclusively Orthodox interests. Agudat Israel also drew support from the well-organized Adath Jeshurun (Breuer) community of Washington Heights, n.y., which transplanted the traditions of German "Austritt-Orthodoxie," and from certain ḥasidic rabbis. Agudat Israel of America was active in rescue work among the Jews of Europe during and after World War ii. It opposed the participation of other Orthodox bodies in roof organizations which include non-Orthodox elements. It supported federal aid to parochial education. Agudat Israel has divisions for children, girls, and youth, including camps serving thousands of youngsters. It also has a job training program called cope, a job placement division, and a housing program, is an active lobbyist at all levels of government, and maintains full-time regional offices, including one in Washington. In 1952 it began the publication of a monthly Dos Yidishe Vort, and in 1963 of an English monthly, the Jewish Observer.


Agudas Jisroel, Berichte und Materialien (1912); I. Breuer, 25 Jahre Aguda (1937); idem, Am ha-Torah ha-Me'urgan (1944); idem, Moriyyah: Yesodot ha-Ḥinnukh ha-Le'ummi ha-Torati (19542); idem, Le-Kivvun ha-Tenu'ah (1936); J. Rosenheim, Agudist World Problems (1941); Y.L. Orlian, La-Seve'im ve-la-Re'evim (19552); N. Krauss (ed.), Ha-Shenaton ha-Dati ha-Enẓiklopedi (1962), 186–97; L.J. Fein, Politics in Israel (1967), 93–95, 127, 167, 175; M.H. Bernstein, Politics in Israel (1957), 48, 57, 71–74; Jewish People and Palestine: Statement … to the Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry… (1947); Liebman, in: ajyb, 66 (1965), 21. publications:Jewish Observer (New York, 1963– ), monthly; Agudist Information Service (London, 1950–56); Beit Ya'akov (Tel Aviv, monthly); Ha-Modi'a (1950– ), daily.

Agudat Israel

views updated Jun 11 2018


Organization of Orthodox Jewry; political party of Orthodox Jews in Israel.

The organization was founded in Katowice (Upper Silesia, now in the southwestern part of Poland), in 1912, as a worldwide movement of Orthodox Jews. It established the Council of Torah Sages as its religious authority on all political matters. Opposed to secular Zionism and the World Zionist Organization (the settlement of Jews in Palestine; a return to Palestine), it consisted of three major groups: German Orthodox followers of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch; the Lithuanian yeshiva (religious school) community; and Polish Hasidic rabbis and their followersespecially the Gur Hasidic group. The major objective was to provide a range of religion-based communal services to strengthen the Orthodox community.

In Palestine, Agudat Israel was established to be independent of the organized Jewish community (the Yishuv). Despite its ideological opposition to secular Zionism, in 1933 it entered into an agreement with the Jewish Agency there (which represented the Yishuv to the British mandate authority), according to which Agudat Israel would receive 6.5 percent of the immigration permits. In 1947, just before Israel's independence, it entered into an even more comprehensive agreement, which has come to be known as the status quo letter. This purported to guarantee basic religious interests in Israel and served to legitimize Agudat Israel's joining the government-in-formation and the initial 19491951 government coalition. At this point, it boltedopposing the government's decision to draft women into the military. In 1977, Agudat Israel supported the Likud-led coalition; it joined Israel's national unity government in 1984 and has since remained part of the government, although it has refused a ministry.

Agudat Israel experienced a number of internal rifts that came to a head in the 1980s and have resulted in the emergence of a group of ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, parties. In 1983, due to long-simmering anger over the absence of Sephardic leadership in the party, the Jerusalem sephardi members of Agudat Israel broke away and established the Sephardi Torah Guardians party, SHAS; it was so successful in the municipal elections in Jerusalem during October 1983 that it ran a national slate of candidates in 1984 and became an impressive force. At the same time, an old conflict between the Hasidic and Lithuanian-type yeshiva elements within Agudat Israelrepresented by the Hasidic rabbis of Gur and Vizhnitz, on one side, and the head of the Ponevez yeshiva in B'nei Brak, Rabbi Eliezer Shach, on the otherreached new heights and culminated in the formation of Shach's Degel HaTorah (Torah Flag) party for the 1988 national elections.

Agudat Israel, like the other haredi parties, is generally moderate on foreign-policy issues, including the administered territories; but it is concerned with all matters of domestic policy, those it perceives as affecting religion, in general, and especially its own educational institutions.

see also israel, political parties in.


Don-Yehiya, Eliezer. "Origin and Development of the Aguda and Mafdal Parties." Jerusalem Quarterly 20 (1981): 4964.

Friedman, Menachem. Dat ve-hevrah. Religion and Society: Non-Zionist Orthodoxy in Eretz Israel, 19181936. Jerusalem, 1977.

Fund, Yosef. "Agudat Israel Confronting Zionism and the State of IsraelTheology and Policy." Ph.D. diss., Bar-Ilan University, 1989 (Hebrew with English summary).

Greilsammer, Ilan. "The Religious Parties." In Israel's Odd Couple: The 1984 Knesset Elections and the National Unity Government, edited by Daniel J. Elazar and Shmuel Sandler. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1990.

Chaim I. Waxman

Agudat Israel

views updated May 14 2018

Agudat Israel (Agudat Yisraʾel). ‘Union of Israel’, abbreviated as Agudah, a world movement of Orthodox Jews. It was founded in 1912, from a number of Orthodox communities as a counterweight to the programmes of the Zionist Congresses. Although it is not a party with a programme, it has developed daʿat Torah, the understanding of Torah on particular matters—i.e. the application by scholars of Torah to all aspects of life. See also ḤAFETS ḤAYYIM.

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