Orthodox Judaism and the Politics of Religion – Daniel Mahla

In 2020, Haredim and Relgious Zionists seem worlds apart. One side following its Rabbinical leadership and living a life of learning Torah, while the other side accepts its Rabbinical leadership but also finds serving in the army and engaging in building the land as prime relgious directives. They represent two very different visions of Orthodox Judaism. Yet, both sides engage in politics, both sides claim to be the Orthodox voice in Israeli politics, seeking to maximize their role in the government with its financial motivations. One side says they will not join a collision unless there is completely no draft for Haredim and the other side says they wont join unless the Haredim are drafted. The big change now is that in the last decades Religious Zionists were having 3-6 children, while the hareidim are having 8-12 children and will soon be a solid 20% of the Israeli population. How did these two groups come to be from the undifferentiated traditional rabbinic world of Eastern Europe circa 1900?

To answer this question, we now have Daniel Mahla’s Orthodox Judaism and the Politics of Religion: From Prewar Europe to the State of Israel (Cambridge University Press, 2020). Mahla teaches at the Historisches Seminar der LMU- Jüdische Geschichte und Kultur, and the coordinator for the Center for Israeli Studies at Munich University. His PhD is from Columbia University. Before coming to Columbia, Daniel did a master’s degree in History, Political Science, and Jewish Studies at Humboldt and Freie Universities in Berlin. This book needs to be read by anyone interested in the history of Orthodoxy. It is an excellent piece of scholarship. The research into primary sources is remarkable in showing how political issues around Zionism separated the two groups.

The book shows how at the turn of the twentieth century in 1902 there was originally a single entity of Orthodoxy, which by 1953 separated into two distinct groups. Mahla’s method is one that will add to a reader’s knowledge, even if well versed in the topic. Mahla does a diplomatic political history, the way one would be a history of the NAFTA treaty or of US-China relations done through the statements of the embassy personnel and diplomats.  Most of us tell the story of the divide in ideological terms, through theology, ideology, and rabbinic leaders. Instead, Mahla tells the story through functionaries, party officials, conferences, requests from the Zionist Organizations, and political differences. He downplays the role actual rabbinic leaders played and instead showed how party official created two distinct groups.

Mahla shows that neither side started with a clear ideology.  The life in Eastern Europe was breaking down, the shtetl faced extreme poverty, the Russian revolution, WWI, and a breakdown of the institutions. Jewish Education was in shambles. The new Jewish urban centers witnessed breakdown of traditional patterns. The secular parties- Bund, citizen’s rights, communist, Zionist- all full ideological agenda to save Jewish life. According to Mahla, the relgious parties had no clear-cut ideologies to start but they worked it out as they founded schools, rabbinical seminaries, social facilities, youth movements, newspapers, libraries, as well as other associations.

Some rabbinical leaders, the Relgious Zionists, thought a major change was needed, others, the Agudah, thought the older models still worked. Some rabbinical leaders thought that Zionism was the answer and to see Jews as a national people, while others, the Agudah, saw Jews primarily as a religion. But both eventually had to turn to the Zionist organization for visa to move to British mandate Palestine, as well as funding.

The Relgious Zionists saw themselves as the true Zionists. The Haredim according to Mahla were not anti-Zionist but counter-Zionists. Mahla credits the Agudath Yisrael president Jacob Rosenheim with creating a counter-movement to Zionism. Both groups saw the other relgious group as a bigger threat than the secular Zionist. It was a fight over who can speak for Judaism and Orthodoxy. Over time, the multitude of institutions of Europe and then mandate Palestine were supported by one or the other organization, they had separate schools, separate yeshivot and even separate printing of relgious books. People were ideologically one or the other, a card-carrying member of one or the other.

On the practical level, they differed over giving women the right to vote in the new Yishuv. The Agudah was adamantly against giving women the right to vote, while Relgious Zionist went along with the Zionists on women’s suffrage in a modern state, even though Rabbi Kook forbid it. They differed on partition and compromise with the Arab population. The agudah was willing to partition the land and make political compromises, while the Relgious Zionists wanted a greater Israel entirely for the Jews as part of a messianic vision.

The two groups worked together in 1948 as a unity party to ensure that the new state would keep shabbat and the dietary laws. But both sides new it was a temporary pragmatic truce.

Mahla ends his book with a final divide in 1953, when Relgious Zionist men were proud to serve in the army and Agudah obtained a exemption from the army for the few hundred studying in Yeshiva. But the divide was widened over the issue of women in the army. The state wanted to draft all women, the Relgious Zionists accepted a compromise of national service for women in lieu of army service, while the Hazon Ish  adamantly, said no to even national service for women. Mahla ends with a coda jumping seventy years to Naftali Bennet and other Religious Zionist leaders fighting with Haredim.

My favorite part was when he shows how an encyclopedia of relgious Zionist leaders made everyone a follower of Torah combined with secular knowledge, while the Agudah book made every party functionary into a gadol in Torah.

The book has a unique approach, almost dramatic, of framing everything as a public battle of these two groups in which they are the only two protagonists. It is like watching Chaim Grade’s “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner” in which a still Orthodox musarnik argues with a secular friend. Here we have the two protagonists Relgious Zionism in a fifty year debate with the Agudah, going back and forth. The secular Zionists and the immense number of those who built the Yishuv, later becoming the leaders of the early Israeli government become a faceless entity of “the Zionist Organization.” And both protagonists are painted as relatively unified in their approaches, rather than having enormous differences among themselves.

And as mentioned at the start, this book avoids discussion of all ideology or great rabbis. The book avoids the material that most of us focus on: Rabbi Isaac Breuer, Rabbi Fishman-Maimon, Rabbi Herzog, the Hazon Ish, Rabbi Ozer Grodinzki, Rabbi Reines, and Shmuel Hayyim Landau. It is a political-diplomatic history. One that all who work in this area will gain from immensely from his research in primary documents and learn many of subtleties of the coming to be of the two contemporary Orthodox parties.

From my perspective, the divisions were not total in 1953. in the 1980’s and 1990’s Rav Shakh’s made the kollel model universal and more importantly spoke against seeking against any grey areas. As I was reading this book, Peter Lintl of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, just posted a forty-page report dated December 2020 on contemporary Haredim, which is worth reading and downloading the pdf for its wealth of facts and statistics.  “The Haredim as a Challenge for the Jewish State: The Culture War over Israel’s Identity”

  1. Did Mizrachists and Agudists have formulated ideology and new worldviews?

The two movements and their struggles have often been depicted in the light of their theological and ideological differences concerning Zionism.

In this ideological approach, religious Zionists wholeheartedly committed themselves to settling Palestine, most traditionalist authorities rejected these attempts out of hand. The Orthodox establishment’s initial, instinctive opposition to Zionism soon evolved into a full-fledged and prolonged ideological struggle over issues like the meaning of Jewish existence and the role of human agency in the messiah’s coming.

Yet as Orthodox Jews, both movements were reluctant to formulate an ideological platform that seemed novel or revolutionary. This was true even for Mizrahi. More than one and a half decades after its creation, one of its foremost rabbinic leaders, Rabbi Moses Avigdor Amiel lamented in 1919: “There is no unique spirit of Mizrahi that unites us into one entity.” As late as the 1930s major Mizrahi leaders complained about the failure of their movement to formulate a clear religious-Zionist ideology and group identification.

One could hardly speak of “Mizrahism” in the way members of the Jewish workers movement identified with their Bundist family (misphokhe). In Agudah, distrust of new ideologies and group formations ran even deeper.

Thus, instead of focusing on their ideological debates, my book analyses their social and political activities. Both movements created a wide net of institutions and organizations. They founded schools, rabbinical seminaries, social facilities, youth movements, various types of associations, newspapers, libraries, as well as other associations and facilities. The two respective movements forged all-encompassing microcosms that facilitated loyalty and fostered group identification through the shaping of interpretative patterns, moral standards, and emotional ties.

This is at the same time an argument for the significance of the two movements. A large part of the research literature focuses on the rabbinic leadership. Yet while towering figures like the Hazon Ish undoubtedly played an important role in formulating Orthodox responses to Zionism, the two major social movements constituted important frameworks that helped organizing and structuring Orthodox society and eventually dividing it into two well-defined camps.

2. How do both movements react to the breakdown of the Kehillah?

Both movements deplored the breakdown of the Jewish community structures (kehillot) during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the concurrent danger to Jewish traditional communities and religious life. Both advocated for strengthening the kehillot. At the same time, Mizrahists and Agudists developed very different approaches for doing so.

Agudists advocated for keeping traditional institutions and organizations. They claimed to merely rebuild the traditional structures, while at the same time strengthening religious authority at the expense of lay leadership and the gave more authority to the local rabbi. Mizrahists, on the other hand, wanted to modernize the communities and strengthen the influence of bureaucratic elites and the administration.

3. What was the chief difference of Mizrachi and Agudah at the start?

As Zionists, Mizrahists embraced modern Jewish nationalism and hoped that Zionism would help lead to the return of secular activists to religious lifestyles. They promoted the cooperation with secularists in the movement.

Yet at the same time they acknowledged the danger of secularism to religious Jewry and over the years had many conflicts with their secularist partners in the Zionist movement. The most important of these conflicts was the question of the creation of a modern (secular) Hebrew culture. Mizrahists agitated against Zionist support for such a culture. Once the Zionist movement decided to support secular cultural institutions in Palestine, Mizrahists invested in their own cultural and educational institutions which essentially led to the emergence of distinct secular and religious frameworks.

Agudah on the other hand, rejected modern Jewish nationalism and tried to counter it by strengthening and forging traditionalist institutions and frameworks. Part of Agudists’ efforts was to shield traditionalist communities from secular influences by creating strong barriers and borders.

Many Agudists welcomed Zionist efforts to unite Jewry on an international (or rather national-Jewish) level. Yet they strongly resisted the strong secular outlook of the movement and the idea of a secular political leadership.

However, the growing influence of the Zionist movement and its hegemonic position in the Jewish communities in Palestine increased the willingness among Agudists to cooperate with the Zionists especially during the 1930s and 1940s. Yet this increasing cooperation at the same time stressed the necessity to shield their communities from secular influence. In my book I describe this pragmatic mode of cooperation as “cooperation on the basis of separation.”

In this context it is important to point out that both movements struggled with the definition of Judaism as either “religion” or “nation,” concepts that had developed in a Christian context. Both movements perceived Judaism to be both religion and nation. Yet they weighed the two loyalties differently. For Agudists, religious affiliations carried the most weight. For Mizrahists, on the other hand, nationalist loyalties were of primary importance and they were willing to subordinate religious affiliations (if not at all costs).

4. How was Agudah a counter movement to Zionism?

Historians usually conceptualized  Agudah as anti-Zionist movement that coped with the nationalist challenges by developing an “ideology of seclusion”. While it is true that Agudists tried to protect religious communities by shielding them from secular influences, I argue that we can understand the aims of these leaders better as counter-movement to Zionism.

Orthodox entrepreneurs established their own institutions and frameworks. Agudath Yisrael gathered such activities under its wings. The aim of the movement was to offer an Orthodox alternative to modern nationalist group formations. Agudath Yisrael, as its later president Jacob Rosenheim argued in 1911, was to become “a counter-movement to Zionism.”

Mizrahi, in its role as an Orthodox movement, posed a great challenge to the endeavor of establishing Agudath Yisrael as the sole political representative of Orthodox Judaism and for that reason the two movements became involved in protracted struggles.

5. If they were not explicitly Zionist, then why did they expect things from the Zionist Organization (ZO) such immigration permits? Is that not asking for things from the Zionist Organization and then spitting in the face of the Zionist Organization or pretending that it does not exist?

When the British Mandate was established after World War I, and with increasingly dire economic perspectives and rising antisemitism in Europe, Palestine became an important center of Jewish life and attracted more and more Jewish immigrants.

Agudists reacted to such developments by creating a local branch in the traditionalist, non-Zionist centers of Jewish life, in particular in Jerusalem. With increasing immigration to British Mandate Palestine during the 1920s and 1930s, more and more traditionalists arrived, strengthening these settlements. During the 1920s, Agudists established their movement as the political representative of these traditionalist settlements, including the Old Yishuv.

As such, they tried to challenge what they perceived to be a Zionist monopoly on the representation of Jewish interests in the area. Immigration certificates, for example, were given to the Zionist dominated Jewish Agency, which distributed them through the different political movements. Agudists, who did not participate in the political structures of the New Yishuv, argued that it was wrong to give preference to Zionist immigrants and successfully demanded immigration certificates for their own adherents. In this context, it is also important to point out that many of the new traditionalist immigrants arriving during the 1930s did in fact join the official Jewish community, thereby blurring the boundaries between New Yishuv and traditionalist settlements, and pushing the latter to enhance their cooperation with the former.

6. How did these movements address the issue of education in the crumbling communities?

Religious Zionists attempted to modernize and professionalize the Jewish communities. Moreover, they lobbied for a more expansive bailiwick, including the power to directly tax members. Stressing the need for centralization, Mizrahi officials advocated for all religious services, not least kosher slaughter, and facilities, like synagogues and Talmud halls, to be placed under the community’s ambit.

Non-Zionist Orthodox leaders were deeply suspicious of these sorts of centralization and democratization initiatives. In 1919, Haim Ozer Grodzinski, the leading Eastern European spiritual authority, declared on the pages of the Agudah newspaper Der Yud that it was not the kehillah’s job “to create new [structures], but to put traditional religious affairs in order.” That said, he shared quite a few of Mizrahi’s concerns, for example, he proposed the introduction of communal membership fees. In general, Agudists preferred strengthening traditionalist institutions and by enhancing the influence and power of the local rabbinic authority (mara de-atra).

Both movements sought to strengthen education by building up new schools and institutions under their purview. Mizrahists supported the introduction of secular topics that was to help religious Jews with coping with their environments. In particular, they aimed at modernizing rabbinic ordination and for that purpose established their own rabbinic seminary in Warsaw in 1920. This institution, the Tachkemoni Yeshiva, was designed to produce a new kind of leader, who as its founder Rabbi Isaac Nissenbaum hoped, would not only tend to their congregants’ spiritual needs but represent them before non-Jewish bodies. “Today a rabbi cannot be one-dimensional,” a 1921 article in the Mizrahi press read; “he must be both the religious as well as national leader of his community.”

Agudists mocked Tachkemoni-trained rabbis for having immersed themselves in profane, rather than sacred, works. They dubbed the seminary a “rabbi factory” that manufactured “leaders on assembly lines” for global export, and claimed that traditional yidishkayt (Jewishness) was foreign to the Tachkemoni “boors.” While deeply critical of introducing secular studies into Jewish male education, they created their own seminaries, such as the Hahmei Lublin Yeshiva in Poland, and politically took the innovative Beit Yaakov schools under their wing.

7. How do the two groups differ over the role of the rabbinate in Jewish life?

Mizrahists tried to establish themselves as a new elite of religious politicians. They were proud that many of their leaders were steeped in religious knowledge. But as their own authority rested on their social and political activism, they were deeply suspicious of the clerical elite and many wanted to confine the rabbis’ authority to the ritual realm of the synagogue.

Agudists, on the other hand, saw religious authority challenged by the Zionist movement, both secular and religious. To counter such challenges, they granted their rabbinical elite unprecedented authority over decisions concerning not only ritual matters but also public and national policies. To this end, they established a Council of Torah Sages that was to direct the party politicians, and to take all important policy decisions.

Such ideas of absolute spiritual authority were of course not unique to Orthodox Judaism, but can be found e.g. in the notion of papal infallibility or the Iranian revolution of 1979. The Council of Torah Sages came nowhere near the power of the repressive state apparatus of Ruhollah Khomeini. Yet the council was an important symbol distinguishing Agudah from its secular and religious-Zionist opponents, helping the movement to establish itself among traditionalist Jews.

8. How did each of them portray their member leaders? On some level, why did Mizrachi make everyone educated and Agudah make everyone a gadol?

Mizrahists depicted their movement and leaders as the perfect synthesis of Orthodox Judaism and Zionist activism. In 1909, one activist opined that his movement incorporated “the spiritual-religious foundation of extremist Orthodoxy – which is passive from a national standpoint – with the national-political principles of secular Zionism – which is passive from a Jewish standpoint – into a single bloc of active Judaism.”  This combination of observance of Orthodox Judaism with Zionist activism posed a serious threat to Agudah.

In response, Agudists depicted themselves as strictly following the rabbinic elite’s directives. What is more, Agudist held that religious sages were not compelled to disclose the textual sources of their rulings, in stark contrast to traditional Jewish modes of decision making. That deprived opponents of the opportunity to challenge respective rulings, thereby constituting a particularly valuable defense against critique from within Orthodox circles. Adherence to such absolute rabbinic authority became a significant identity marker of ultra-Orthodox Jews. It effectively divided not only the two political movements but played an essential role in the creation of two distinct socio-cultural milieus.

9. What were the women’s issues that they differed on and which did they agree about?

Agudists wanted to confine the public sphere strictly to men and excluded women from any leadership positions. As Orthodox Jews, Mizrahists were also highly critical towards the idea of female participation in political activism, but at the same time barring women from political enterprise seemed ill-suited for a nationalist movement.

This issue was urgent in Palestine during the late 1910s and early 1920s, where Jews debated the participation of women in the emerging communal structures. Traditionalist Orthodoxy was firmly opposed to female participation in communal elections as either voters or representatives and used the issue to separate their communities from the Zionist frameworks.

Religious Zionist, on the other hand, found themselves between a rock and a hard place because for secular Zionists by this point the right of women to take part in politics was already beyond dispute

Religious Zionists vacillated over this issue for several years, until it decided in favor of female enfranchisement, concurrently disregarding a directive of the most important religious Zionist authority, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who already declared his opposition to such enfranchisement in September 1919. In this vein, the issue of women political participation became a further marker between the two movements and their communities. 

10. How did they differ over equal rights for the local Palestinians? Did they differ on other issues relating to the Arabs?

During the 1920s and parts of the 1930s, Agudists were opposed to the idea of a Jewish nation state and preferred Jews to live as a protected minority in an Arab empire. With the deterioration of Jewish life in Europe during the 1930s, and its utter destruction during the 1940s, Agudists accepted the fact that a Jewish state would eventually be established. However, they strictly separated such an entity from any messianic hopes. This, ironically, made it much easier for them to reach political and territorial compromise. When the British proposed the partition of Palestine in the mid-1930s, Agudists were willing to accept.

A statement of one of the most important Agudah leaders in Palestine, Moses Blau, in his debate with Zionist representatives illuminates this pragmatism. When asked by the Zionist leader Menahem Ussishkin about the eschatological significance of the Zionist movement, he responded: “Do you really believe that the national movement has any connection to our future redemption? The Land of Israel is, to date, an Arab country, and when we have the opportunity to receive political equality – if only the Arabs shall agree – then we have to welcome this [political parity] with open arms.” Any further goals, he argued, should be left to the Messiah.

Among Mizrahists, on the other hand, political hawks with uncompromising stances towards Palestinian Arabs, gained the upper hand. While there were moderates, such as the first Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Avigdor Amiel, who preached tolerance towards the non-Jewish local population, these lost influence with the increasingly violent conflict with the Arab population during the late 1920s and 1930s. “Whoever governs the land, it is ours and will be ours,” wrote the movement’s imminent political leaders, Rabbi Yehuda Maimon, in a fiercely nationalist response to Arab riots that broke out in August of 1929 and left hundreds of Jews dead and wounded. When the British attempted to partition the land in 1937, Mizrahists were among the strictest opponents demanding that greater Israel is to be entirely part of a Jewish state. In discussions with the British, Maimon claimed that Jews were divinely forbidden to grant other nations a share in the land.

Asked about the idea of a state with political parity between Jews and Arabs, Maimon pronounced “As a religious Jew, I can by no means agree on giving Arabs political equality.” Turning the question of partition into a religious issue made it extremely difficult for religious Zionist to compromise. Only after the calamities of the Second World War and the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust, did they consent to partition in order to create a Jewish state.

11. How did they compete over yeshiva funding in 1940?

In early 1940s, the two movements founded umbrella organizations for religious academies in Palestine through which funds were distributed to these institutions. Every academy seeking financial support had to align itself with one of the organizations, and thus the split between the two camps became entrenched and institutionalized in the world of higher religious education.

The case of yeshiva funding illustrates the fact that two movements not only acted as political stakeholders, but created many social and educational institutions and frameworks that helped the formation of two distinct socio-cultural milieus. Establishing a wide range of schools, rabbinical seminaries, social facilities, youth movements, cultural associations, newspapers, libraries, and many additional organizations and establishments, they created distinct microcosms that helped to establish loyalties and maintain identification and thus shaped interpretative patterns, moral standards, and emotional ties.

In Europe, Agudists and Mizrahists competed with a wide range of both religious and secular institutions and protagonists. The Nazi genocide brutally destroyed this diversity. In Palestine, on the other hand, both movements respectively established themselves as the exclusive political representatives of religious Jewry, thereby essentially dividing Orthodox Jews into two camps. In the Jewish settlements in Palestine, political parties were key players, for in the absence of a state, resources were allocated via their institutions.

12. Why did they comprise in 1944 and why did they create a united religious front in 1948?

With the British proposal to partition Palestine in 1937, the creation of a Jewish state seemed to be more and more within reach.

Both movements were anxious about religious life in a secular state. In order to safeguard religious lifestyles and institutions in a future state, they came together in the late 1930’s to discuss Orthodox cooperation. While high-ranking party politicians of both sides convened in Paris in 1938 and in London in 1939, they failed to secure cooperation. Yet leaders from both sides continued to meet over the next years and in these discussions agreed on basic Orthodox demands regarding the emerging state structures.

In November 1948, the different Orthodox parties formed the “United Religious Front,” a political alliance to safeguard religious interests in the new state. This front, however, did not signify the political and ideological convergence of Agudah’s positions with basic religious-Zionist tenets, as some scholars argue. It was a “marriage of convenience”, as one activist put it, with the limited aim to safeguard basic religious rights. Once those rights were secured, the two camps  parted ways.

13 Why was the issue over drafting women important and why do you use it as a way to frame the book at the beginning and ending?

During the early years of Israeli statehood, its political representative fiercely debated the issue of a mandatory military service for Jewish women. Due to the fragile political situation, a strong army was vital to the survival of the state. What is more, secular Zionists saw in a mandatory military service an important contribution of both men and women to the welfare of the state and thus an important aspect of gender equality.

On the other hand, for religious leaders of both groups, the idea of young women serving in the army next to their male peers was anathema. A rare unity prevailed among Zionist and non-Zionist rabbinic authorities, who all declared that female military service was prohibited according to Jewish religious law (halakhah).

In the following years, a compromise was reached between secular politicians and their religious-Zionist peers. A specially appointed commission proposed exempting religiously observant women from the draft, if they serve in civil institutions instead.

While religious Zionists embraced this compromise, ultra-Orthodox leaders fumed against a mandatory civil service for religious women, and in the ultra- Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem, angry masses took to the streets to demonstrate. Ultra-Orthodox politicians left the governing coalition of (over?) this issue, never to return. Religious-Zionists on the other hand, stayed in the coalition and supported the passing of this legislation. The issue and the fierce debates surrounding it symbolized the final parting of ways of the two movements.

During the 1950s, Orthodox Jews differed not only in their political affiliations, but these distinctions denoted that the groups differed in their attitudes toward halakhah, as well as in their social norms and behaviors.

The highest ultra-Orthodox rabbinic authority of the period, the Hazon Ish, decreed a “prohibition by halakhah to vote for the law of conscripting girls to a civil service.” The refusal of religious Zionist politicians to accept his ruling brought the fundamental differences of the two communities and their leaders to the fore.

The refusal of ultra-Orthodox leaders to accept any compromise on this issue, on the other hand, helped fostering clear boundaries between their own communities and their Israeli surroundings (ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students had been already exempted from military service by an agreement between Agudat Yisrael and Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion). In contrast, religious Zionists integrated into Israeli society, serving in the army shoulder to shoulder with their secular peers. At the same time, exempting religious girls from military service while having them serve in civil institutions helped Orthodox leaders to preserve their distinct milieu within the Zionist-Israeli society.

A second cornerstone of these new milieus that was forged during these same years was the formation of three distinct Jewish educational streams (in addition to an Arab one): a secular one, a national-religious system and an independent ultra-Orthodox system under the auspice of Agudat Yisrael.     

14. In the end, could a united Orthodox party have been created at any point?

Much of the scholarship on Orthodox Jewish politics perceives the non-cooperation of the two movements during the interwar period as “lost opportunity” and puts the blame on Agudath Yisrael, claiming that its leaders were not able to overcome ideological and political barriers.

Rather than asking about lost opportunities, my book shifts the focus to the political dynamics between the two movements and carefully situates calls for cooperation and actual negotiations in their concrete historical context.

It is true that we can find quite a few calls for cooperation in the religious Zionist press and from individual Mizrahi leaders. Yet many of such press releases served the purpose of mobilizing adherents and convincing the Jewish masses that  Agudah was passive and neglected its duties towards religious Jewry. A typical example is a newspaper article of the Polish Mizrahi leader Joshua Heshel Farbstein from November 1919, in which he bemoaned the schism that was hindering Polish Orthodoxy and advocated for cooperation in its stead. But rather than offering practical steps in that direction, he went on to attack his political opponents for monopolizing the Orthodox political sphere and predicted their demise. His article as well as his conclusion that “the future of religious Jewry in Poland and Lithuania belongs to Mizrahi” hardly make a convincing argument for fruitful cooperation.

To be sure, Agudists employed similar tactics. The point here is not to put the blame on Mizrahi instead. Rather, I argue that we have to pay close attention to differing political interests and strategies, instead of taking such statements at face value. Both sides employed similar tactics.

Part of the challenge for historians is the fact that due to the two movements’ different approaches to social and political activism, Mizrahists produced many more historical sources than  Agudists did and their archives today are more accessible. This creates an archival imbalance that we have to take into accou

15. Did the movement change in their ideologies during the 50 years from 1902-1953 covered in your book? Or was it really a fait accomplice in 1902 that took time to be articulated?

My book argues that this intra-religious competition was an important factor in facilitating observant Jewry’s transition to the age of the nation state. Their competition helped both sides to develop and strengthen their respective organizations and outlooks, and contributed to the formation not only of two distinct political camps, but of two very different socio-cultural milieus.

These developments were far from a forgone conclusion when the religious Zionist movement was founded in 1902. Looking at these dynamics we can detect several important turning points.

The emergence of Agudath Yisrael ten years later was a first important step towards the formation of two political camps, which not only provided non-Zionist Orthodoxy with an organizational framework, but at the same time helped Mizrahists to develop and sharpen their own positions. 

During the next decade, leaders from both sides occasionally reached out to the other side. Interestingly, calls for cooperation and actual negotiations during this period were frequently accompanied by statements that such cooperation would eventually cause the other side to dissolve and to join the own movement. Leaders from both sides of the aisle showed themselves convinced that their own movement was the sole legitimate representative of Orthodox Jewry and would prevail.

A few years after World War One, these attempts stopped. For the next decade and a half, both movements focused on their own consolidation. Political rivalries and mutual attacks in the press helped both sides to hone their platforms and outlooks. When the political leadership met again in 1938-39, not only the social and political context had changed drastically, but the movements themselves and their dynamics greatly differed from the early 1920s. Although they remained fierce opponents, each side was forced to acknowledge that the other would neither join its own ranks nor simply dissolve. The negotiations in Paris & London themselves constituted indirect recognition of the fact that each side represented a distinct part of Orthodox Jews.

Both sides also had gradually reached the understanding that the terms of their political rivalries would change drastically with the founding of a state. Therefore, even after the collapse of the negotiations in 1938-1939, several leaders kept meeting and prepared the way for the cooperation in the framework of the United Religious Front during the first years of the state. The disbandment of this political alliance and the final parting of ways in the context of the debates about a civil service for religious women highlighted not only the deep rifts between these two political camps, but the emergence of two distinct Orthodox societies.

A further aspect impacting the development of the two movements was their separate relationship with the Zionist Organization. From early on, Mizrahist had called on their Orthodox brethren to support and joint the Zionist movement. Yet when Agudists and the Zionist Organization started negotiating the terms of cooperation in the mid-1920s and gradually reached an understanding during the 1930s and 1940s, Mizrahists were among the fiercest opponents of such rapprochement. Direct negotiations between Agudah and the Zionist Organization jeopardized Mizrahi’s position as it highlighted an alternative approach of Orthodox-Zionist cooperation. The existence of Mizrahi, on the other hand, helped the general Zionists in their claim to represent the whole Jewish people, and not only its secular parts, and undermined Agudist attempts to establish their movement as the exclusive representative of Orthodox Jewry.

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