Agudat Israel

   Agudat Israel (the Aguda) is a movement that views the Torah as the only legitimate code of laws binding upon the Jews. It is a religiously oriented political party representing the interests of a section of ultra-Orthodox Jewry living both in and outside the Jewish state. The Aguda was established and its policies and programs delineated in Kattowitz (Katowice), Poland, in 1912 during a conference of the major eastern European and German-Austro-Hungarian Orthodox rabbis. It was formed, to a significant extent, in reaction to the growth of political Zionism with its secular majority. The original concept was to unite Orthodox groups in eastern and western Europe into a united front in opposition to Zionism and its efforts to alter Jewish life, but there were different perspectives on a number of issues. The Aguda was to be a Torah movement directed by a Council of Torah Sages, which was to be the supreme authority in all matters.
   Originally, Agudat Israel was ambivalent concerning the resettlement of Palestine. Jewish law and tradition supported settling in Palestine, and the Holocaust made it a practical necessity, but there was a problem because many of the new settlers did not observe Jewish law. Agudat Israel has held aloof from Zionism and dissociated itself from the World Zionist Organization (WZO) and the Jewish Agency because of its conviction that by cooperating closely with such irreligious elements, it would fail in the supreme aim of imposing the absolute rule of Jewish religion upon Jewish life. It opposed the concept of a Jewish national home and of a Jewish state not founded on Jewish law and tradition. Agudat Israel opposed the Zionist view that Jews had to leave the Diaspora, settle in Palestine, and build a new society there in order to live a proper Jewish life. The Orthodox groups held that the concept of the "ingathering of the exiles" and the return to Zion could not be separated from the Messianic redemption, for which the time had not yet come.
   In Palestine, Agudat Israel acquired land, founded the settlement of Mahane Yisrael, and established schools. It carried on an active anti-Zionist political campaign in British circles and in the world press in the 1920s. In England, it denied the Jewish Agency's right to act as the representative of the Jewish people and demanded recognition but was turned down. In Palestine, Agudat Israel was opposed to the organization of the Jewish community along the lines of Zionist ideology and opted out of the officially recognized Jewish community (Knesset Yisrael). It also did not recognize the authority of the chief rabbinate established by the British and set up its own rabbinical court. However, in the late 1920s, with the arrival of significant numbers of new Agudat Israel members from Europe who wanted to participate in the economic and social development of the Yishuv and who could not accept the idea of complete isolation from the WZO and the Zionist Movement, the Agudat Israel leadership in Palestine was reorganized. The end result was that some of the older and more conservative elements broke away from the movement and later formed the Neturei Karta.
   The genocide of European Jewry helped to convince Agudat Israel of the value of Zionism, and it granted de facto recognition to the Yishuv. At the same time, it retained its reservations concerning the establishment of an independent Jewish state. Prior to Israel's independence, an arrangement was concluded with David Ben-Gurion, then chairman of the Jewish Agency, in which Agudat Israel agreed to support the state on condition that the status quo in religious matters be maintained. Agudat Israel then joined the Provisional Council of State and participated in Israel's first government. Although it boycotted the institutions of the Jewish community in Palestine, it eventually became a political party in 1948. Since independence, it has contested the various Knesset elections and has been represented in it. It now accepts the state but without ascribing any religious significance to it. It has been represented in parliament since 1948 and has supported most of the coalition governments, but since 1952, it has refused to accept a cabinet portfolio.
   The movement's voting strength lies in Jerusalem and Bnai Brak and consists mostly of Ashkenazim. All crucial policy decisions are made not by the party's Knesset members or its membership but by the 12-member Council of Torah Sages. Besides the council, the party's central institutions are the Great Assembly, composed of representatives of the local branches; the Central World Council; and the World Executive Committee. It has a youth movement (Tzeirei Agudat Yisrael), a women's movement (Neshei Agudat Yisrael), and its own school and yeshiva network in which religious instruction is a major part of the curriculum. The government supplies most of the funds for the school system. Historically, its support for coalition governments was secured only after the construction of lengthy coalition agreements containing numerous concessions to the group's religious perspectives, for example, strict Sabbath laws and revision of legislation to accommodate Orthodox Jewish principles.
   During the 1988 Knesset election campaign, the political fortunes of Agudat Israel were strengthened by the intervention of the Lubav-itcher rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson and by the Vishnitzer rebbe and the Gerer rebbe. Some observers attributed the winning of three Knesset seats to this support.
   Long-standing personal and political rivalries between factions of Agudat Israel headed by Rabbi Schneerson and Rabbi Eliezer Schach led to the formation of a breakaway faction of ultra-Orthodox Ashke-nazi Jews known as Degel HaTorah, which ran a separate list in the 1988 Knesset election. In 1992 and 1996, Agudat Israel and Degel HaTorah agreed to submit joint slates of candidates under the banner of the United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party, winning four seats in each election. Consistent with their non-Zionist political orientation, the leaders of UTJ agreed to join the Likud-led coalition headed by Benjamin Netanyahu but refused to sit as members of the cabinet, although party leader Rabbi Meir Porush did serve as deputy minister in the powerful Ministry of Housing and Construction. In the elections to the 15th Knesset (1999), UTJ won five seats. In the elections to the 16th Knesset in 2003, the party took five seats; it agreed to join the Ariel Sharon-led governing coalition on 10 January 2005 but declined to hold ministerial portfolios. Agudat Israel and Degel HaTorah submitted a joint list as UTJ for the 17th Knesset in 2006 and won six seats.
   The strong influence of Ashkenazi Jews in Agudat Israel contributed to the formation of a breakaway faction of ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Jews known as Sephardi Torah Guardians (SHAS) prior to the 1984 Knesset election. In addition, one of the most significant changes in Israeli politics beginning as early as the late 1980s was the growing "nationalism" of Agudat Israel, manifested most prominently in its active support for West Bank and Gaza settlers and its opposition to territorial concessions in peacemaking.
   See also Status Quo Agreement.

Historical Dictionary of Israel. .

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