(Agudat Yisra’el; Aguda[h]; Union of Israel) is a political movement of Orthodox Jewry, founded at a conference in Kattowitz (Upper Silesia; today Katowice, Poland) in May 1912. Subsequently, branches of the movement were established in most countries of Western and Eastern Europe, as well as in the United States and pre-state Israel. It was in interwar Eastern Europe, though, that Agudas Yisroel reached the pinnacle of its political achievement and institutional development. Hasidic rebbes in Poland and yeshiva heads in Lithuania legitimized the movement religiously, and their followers formed the bulk of its constituency.
Despite a conservative, traditional self-image, Agudas Yisroel owes a great deal of its organizational structure, educational policy, and political ideology to the approaches (or the perceived threats) of its ideological and political rivals. More extreme Orthodox elements (e.g., the rebbes of Bełz and Munkács) denounced the very founding of an Orthodox political party as a betrayal of the tradition that the party purportedly wished to defend. Agudas Yisroel entered the arena of modern parliamentary and communal politics, but even in this new situation it regarded itself as a continuation of the venerable Jewish tradition of shtadlones (Heb., shtadlanut; intercessionary politics). In its ideology, Agudas Yisroel introduced to Jewish politics the innovative doctrine of Daas Toyre (Torah view), a doctrine holding that great Torah scholars had an almost infallible ability to determine the proper path for the Jewish people not just in strictly religious matters, but also for social and political questions. Consequently, such scholars theoretically oversaw the interests and decisions of the party.
Foundation of the Movement
The impetus to establish Agudas Yisroel came from Orthodox groups in Germany that united to establish the Freie Vereinigung für die Interessen des Orthodoxen Judentums (Free Union for the Interests of Orthodox Jewry). Early in the twentieth century, this organization sought the support of leading East European rabbis and their followers to oppose Zionism and Reform Judaism. Their efforts dovetailed with sentiments within certain elements of East European Orthodox Jewry who lamented the lack of organization of traditional Jews in the face of increasingly militant Zionist and Jewish socialist groups. No less disturbing to advocates of the Freie Vereinigung were the serious weaknesses that they perceived in traditional institutions such as the rabbinate, which had proved inadequate to meet the challenges of growing secularization, mass migration to large cities and abroad, and the flight from traditional lifestyles and religious education.
Delegates at an Agudas Yisroel convention, Warsaw, 1930. (YIVO)
The short-lived Keneset Yisra’el Party (1907–1908), initiated by East European rabbis, was an abortive attempt to provide an independent Orthodox alternative to Zionism and socialism. After several years of negotiations, the Freie Vereinigung brought together rabbis associated with Keneset Yisra’el, representatives of Hasidic groups, and some Central and East European religious Zionists (who had split with the Mizraḥi party and left the Zionist movement over the issue of secular schools sponsored by the Zionist movement as official policy) to form the nucleus of the Agudas Yisroel movement that convened in Kattowitz.
The 300 delegates at the Kattowitz conference faced the complex and challenging task of overriding very real differences among traditional communities in Germany, Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, and elsewhere. The goal in forming Agudas Yisroel was to create an overarching, “ecumenical” Orthodox identity to be shared by all these communities, represented by one organization. A compromise view prevailed, and individual communities were allowed to make their own decisions at local and regional levels. Though some steps were taken to set up a larger organization, including plans for establishing a world body of Agudas Yisroel to be called the Kenesiyah Gedolah (Great Assembly), the outbreak of World War I made plans to convene such a conference in August 1914 impossible. Consequently, the first international assembly did not take place until 1923.
In most European countries, ongoing activities of Agudas Yisroel commenced only during World War I or thereafter. In Poland, emissaries of the Frankfurt Orthodox communities were attached to the German occupation forces, and played a leading role in organizing local Hasidim. The Polish branch of Agudas Yisroel, called at first Agudat Ha-Ortodoksim (The Orthodox League), was founded in 1916; it became the largest and most politically active branch of the movement and attracted members loyal to the Ger Hasidic dynasty in Congress Poland; the movement also developed pockets of support in Polish Lithuania and Galicia.
Although no membership figures exist for Aguda in Poland, its relative strength is best measured by its electoral achievements in the parliamentary, municipal, and Jewish communal arenas. Agudas Yisroel succeeded in electing deputies to the Polish Sejm and senate as well as to municipal councils. Its members gained the control of many kehilot, including the major communities of Warsaw and Łódź. On the parliamentary level, Aguda remained a distant, if consistent second to the General Zionists (2 of 11 Jewish deputies in the Sejm that was elected in 1919; 6 of 35 Jewish deputies returned in the elections of 1922). As was the case with all Jewish parties in Poland, Aguda’s successes on the national parliamentary level were few and far between, and major Jewish grievances remained unresolved, even if intercession on behalf of individuals or communities occasionally ameliorated acute problems.
Rabbi Me’ir Shapira with a model of the Second Temple at Yeshivat Ḥakhme Lublin, Lublin, ca. 1930s. At the time, the replica was the only model of the Temple in the world and drew international visitors, both Jewish and non-Jewish. (YIVO)
Among the outstanding leaders of Agudas Yisroel in Poland were Avraham Mordekhai Alter (the Gerer rebbe) and Ḥayim Ozer Grodzenski of Vilna—leaders of the Hasidic and non-Hasidic elements in the party, respectively; Me’ir Shapira—leading yeshiva educator and Sejm deputy; Eliyahu Kirshbraun, Ya‘akov Trokenheim, and Leib Mincberg—the major lay political leaders of the party; Aleksander Zysha Frydman, Yehudah Leib Orlean, and Eli‘ezer Gershon Friedenson—educators and publicists.
In other countries the fortunes of Agudas Yisroel depended on the loyalty of local Orthodox Jews, but also on the popularity of local leaders who headed communal or parliamentary lists. Thus in Latvia, Aguda consistently drew a significant number of Jewish voters due to the reputation of Mordekhai Dubin, a Lubavitch activist held in high regard by religious and secular Jews alike for his tireless intercessionary activities. Although it was unusual for someone associated with the Ḥabad movement to be involved with the Aguda (due to longstanding tensions between Ḥabad leader Yosef Yitsḥak Shneerson and rabbis associated with Aguda), it seems that Dubin chose it as a personal vehicle for lack of any other easily identifiable Orthodox, anti-Zionist political alternative in Latvia. In Bessarabia (before World War I part of Russia; in the interwar period part of Romania), the reputation of Aguda came mainly from the activism of Yehudah Leib Zirelson of Kishinev, a rabbi and major formulator of Orthodox political doctrine who served as chair of the Great Assemblies of Agudas Yisroel and was elected to the Romanian parliament and senate.
The various branches of Agudas Yisroel also invested efforts into educational and cultural work. Aguda politicians intervened with government officials to remove bureaucratic obstacles to traditional education. Polish branches succeeded in getting the government to recognize the legitimacy of the Aguda schools (to gain this status, however, heders were required to include some secular subjects in their programs). In interwar Poland, the school networks that had affiliated with Agudas Yisroel were the largest groups within the Jewish private school systems. Among these schools were the Beys Yankev girls’ schools, established by Sarah Schenirer in 1917.
Joint Distribution Committee figures for Aguda-affiliated schools systems in 1937 are shown below in Table 1. These figures represented 46 percent of the private Jewish institutions, 56 percent of the total student body, and 49 percent of the total expenditure on private Jewish education that year.
While Agudas Yisroel opposed secular Zionism, it did not object to Jewish settlement in Palestine. Affiliated youth movements devoted much of their activities to preparing young Orthodox Jews for emigration to the Land of Israel. In the realm of practical politics in Poland, Aguda entered into a number of coalition agreements with Zionist parties, both in the parliament and in the kehilot.
With the outbreak of World War II and the Soviet occupation and annexation of the Baltic states, Agudas Yisroel, along with all other Jewish parties, ceased to function in those countries, though efforts were maintained by its members there and in the West to rescue Jews from Eastern Europe, particularly rabbis and yeshiva students. In Polish ghettos, the surviving Aguda activists continued their communal work, mainly in educational and mutual aid. During the early postwar years, when a multiparty system still existed in Poland, Agudas Yisroel functioned openly but without legal recognition, vying with Mizraḥi for influence over the small remnants of religious Jews in the country.
Agudas Yisroel is still governed officially by a rabbinic body called the Council of Torah Sages. Until the Holocaust, rabbis and rebbes of Eastern Europe dominated this council. Yet even with this structure in place, the larger body rarely gathered officially, and most decisions were made through less formal interactions with ruling authorities. The movement also contained subdivisions, including Tseirey Agudas Yisroel (a youth movement, founded in 1919), Poyale Agudas Yisroel (for workers, founded in 1923), Bnos Agudas Yisroel (for girls, founded in 1925–1926), and Neshey Agudas Yisroel (for women, founded in 1929).
Representatives of Agudas Yisroel in Poland at a conference, Mariánské Lázně, Czechoslovakia (now in Czech Republic), ca. 1930s. (The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum/Israel)
Agudas Yisroel continues to have an influence today. In Israel, it is a political party that makes up one of the two factions in the United Torah Judaism Party (the combined party held 6 seats in the 120-member Seventeenth Knesset, elected in March 2006). In the United States and other Diaspora countries, Aguda functions as the lobbying group for non-Zionist Orthodoxy.
Gershon C. Bacon, The Politics of Tradition: Agudat Yisrael in Poland, 1916–1939 (Jerusalem, 1996); Eliahu-Me’ir Bloch, “Agudat Yisra’el,” in Yahadut Lit’a, ed. Refa’el Ḥasman et al., vol. 2, pp. 234–235 (Tel Aviv, 1972); Eleh ezkerah: Osef toldot kedoshe 5700–5705, vol. 1, pp. 164–176 (New York, 1956); Joseph Friedenson, A History of Agudath Israel: The First 50 Years (New York, 1970); Alexander Guterman, Kehilat Varshah ben shete milḥamot ‘olam: Otonomyah le’umit be-khavle ha-ḥok veha-metsi’ut (Jerusalem, 1997); Dov Levin, “Toldot Yehude Latviyah,” in Pinkas ha-kehilot: Latviyah ve-Estonyah, pp. 1–50 (Jerusalem, 1988); Ezra Mendelsohn, “The Politics of Agudas Yisroel in Inter-War Poland,” Soviet Jewish Affairs 2.2 (1972): 47–60; Alan Mittleman, The Politics of Torah: The Jewish Political Tradition and the Founding of Agudat Israel (Albany, N.Y., 1996); Mordekhai Slipoi, “Agudat Yisra’el be-Bes’ar’abyah,” in Entsiklopedyah shel galuyot, vol. 11, Yahadut Bes’ar’abyah, ed. Yitsḥak Korn, cols. 869–880 (Jerusalem, 1971); Jerzy Tomaszewski, ed., Najnowsze dzieje Żydów w Polsce: W zarysie (do 1950 roku) (Warsaw, 1993), pp. 424–450; David Vital, A People Apart: A Political History of the Jews in Europe, 1789–1939 (Oxford and New York, 1999), pp. 616–640, 785–789.
RG 28, Poland (Vilna Archives), Collection, ca. 1850-1939; RG 49, Chojrew (Vilna), Records, 1924-1930s (finding aid).