Agudat - (Yiddish; from Hebrew Agudat Yisrael – Union of Israel) – a conservative political party established in 1912, declaring orthodox Judaism and faithfulness to Halachic principles, viewed as the essence of the life of Jewish community.
The origins of this conservative and orthodox political movement could be traced back to the debates conducted by orthodox authors, and then in their strong opposition against Haskalah in the early 19th century. The orthodox current (also known as Haredim) referred to tradition but it also meant a departure from certain principles enshrined in tradition. Going against tradition, the orthodox movement strived to establish its own separate organisational forms wherever it did not control the institutions of the communities professing Judaism. The movement developed a particularly rigorous standard of observation of detailed religious orders and bans, sometimes dubious from the Halachic perspective but regarded by its followers as commonly binding. The movement rejected any forms of secular education, accepting only Talmudic studies. Meanwhile, it adopted Shulchan Aruch, the code of practice, as absolutely mandatory for all Jews, together with the commentary by Moses Isserles. It rejected the possibility to introduce any modifications and adaptation of customs to the changing requirements of the modern world. Initially, the orthodox movement differed from Hassidism and, to some extent, also from Mitnagdim (its opponents). However, as years passed, and the movement for the reform of Judaism and secular Jewish ideologies (Zionism and socialism) developed, those three streams which relied on tradition to a various extent, merged into a single political camp.
The early days of the orthodox camp may be traced back to rabbinic disputes which flared up in the 2nd half of the 18th century around issues such as the shaving of beards and the moment of burial of the deceased. In subsequent decades more problems sprang up, among them the strong aversion among many rabbis towards the Enlightenment reforms (especially concerning children’s education) imposed by the Habsburg Monarchy, which were accepted by the supporters of Haskalah. The orthodox camp got firmly established in early 19th century in connection with the dispute around innovations introduced in the Hamburg synagogue: prayers in German, some modifications of the prayer texts and organ music. As a result, two separate religious Jewish congregations were formed; the spiritual leader of the orthodox Jews was rabbi from Pressburg (today the capital of Slovakia, Bratislava) Moses Sofer (1753–1839, called Hatam Sofer, from the title of his work), who formulated a principle that ‘’new' is forbidden under the authority of the Torah’. After his death, a radical trend developed in the orthodox community and its supporters considered some views of Hatam Sofer even too lenient (e.g. consent to replace long khalats with shorter jackets). In 1865 in Michalovce (today in Slovakia) an orthodox rabbinic conference adopted a ban on introducing any modifications in synagogues; they even spoke against learning the language of the country where Jews lived. Orthodox Jews were less radical in Germany, where its influences yielded to the developing movement for the reform of Judaism; this trend survived, to some extent, in Greater Poland and Southern Germany, yet at the price of compromise: they consented to combine the Torah principles with the lay culture (2nd half of 19th century), integration with the German surroundings and abandonment of external signs of Jewishness (clothes, facial hair etc.). At the same time, the authority of Shulchan Aruch was preserved and the reform of Judaism was rejected, except for sermons in German. An eminent representative of the orthodox movement in Germany was rabbi Israel Salanter (1810–1883), whereas in the Kingdom of Poland this movement was represented by the Gerrer tzadik, rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter.
Supporters of orthodox ideas, however weaker, continued to be influential in the Jewish community; they spoke in defence of the religious tradition as they understood it, fiercely fought against Jews who demonstrated different views, established separate religious institutions but distanced themselves from the political life as they believed that it was necessary to adhere to traditional methods of behaviour towards the non-Jewish environment, as shaped in the past (shtadlanut). Supporters of orthodox outlook were divided in their views on a number of detailed issues. Alongside the development of Jewish political organisations which promoted ideas contradicting orthodoxy, the appearance of Jewish press, modern education systems (including mandatory schooling imposed by the state) and modern ideologies, the orthodox communities faced the question on how to effectively prevent the modernisation of the Jewish community and abandonment of the traditional lifestyle. Some attempts were made to leverage modern methods to defend tradition.
A harbinger of this current was the ‘Der Israelit’ biweekly, published in Lviv in 1868–1871 by Shomer Yisrael (Hebr. Watchman of Israel). The first attempt to organise the orthodox community under a political aegis was Machzikei ha-Dat (Hebr. Supporters of the Law), a party established in 1879 in Galicia by rabbi Szymon Schreiber (Sofer; he was a son of Chatam Sofer) from Cracow, and Belzer Rebbe, rabbi Joszua Rokeach; the former was elected to the Austrian parliament in the same year and in 1870 the party introduced its representatives also to the National Sejm. The immediate goal of the party was to prevent any changes in the Jewish community and to bar the establishment of a modern rabbinical seminary. The party survived just for a few years lat but the idea of joining conservative forces against Zionism, socialism and the dangers of secular culture was not abandoned. The same name was also used for a short time by an organisation in Russia and the Kingdom of Poland (established in 1890).
Soon, new initiatives sprang up in Germany and Russia. Starting from 1905 the influential orthodox organisation Freie Vereinigung für die Interessen des Orthodoxen Judentums (Germ. Free Association for the Interests of Orthodox Jewry) in Frankfurt am Main (which got detached from the local Jewish religious commune) took energetic steps against Zionism and reform Judaism. A few years later, German Mizrahim established close links with it. In Russia, in 1907–1908 orthodox rabbis, among them Chaim Ojzer Grodzieński of Vilnius (1863–1940), established an orthodox organisation called Knesset Isroel (Hebr. Assembly of Israel), which they presented as a successor of Machzikei ha-Dat. However, that organisation did not manage to overcome obstacles posed by Russian officials. The idea of collaboration between orthodox circles was also raised by rabbis in other countries.
An important role in achieving agreement between representatives of various orthodox currents was plated by rabbi Icchak Izaak Halewi (1847–1914), from Belarus, who was a historian and a Talmud scholar. He facilitated a conference in Bad Homburg (1907) and in Frankfurt am Main (1911). During the conference numerous discrepancies surfaced between supporters of orthodoxy from Western Europe (notably Germany) and Eastern Europe. The former critically viewed the total rejection of modern civilisation by Eastern rabbis. The latter, in turn, challenged the Halachic knowledge of German rabbis and felt dominated by the latter. Nevertheless, participants of the Frankfurt congress decided to convene a founding conference of the world organisation of orthodox Jews next year in Katowice. Resolutions of that conference enabled the establishment of AI as a political representation of orthodox circles.
The essential principle of the new organisation was the belief that all problems of the modern world can, and should, be solved in line with the Torah and Jewish tradition. AI did not formulate a programme since its activists believed that they are not a regular party but a representation of the entire people of Israel (Hebr. klal Isroel), embracing the whole of Judaism as its programme. The main goal was to defend the Torah and Jewish tradition against the threats of modernism. Accordingly, AI believed that danger for the people of Israel came from contemporary movements and ideologies departing from tradition, but it also declared loyalty towards any authorities of states inhabited by Jews provided that the authorities would allow them to observe the principles of Judaism and would not interfere with the internal life of religious communes. A premise for this attitude came from a Talmudic adage: ‘Samuel said: the law of the state is the law.’ The party did not aspire to influence the state-level policies and considered them to be the domain f non-Jewish circles. It limited itself to defending the interests of the Jewish community, notably in the religious sphere, but also in other matters (esp. business). When doing this, AI invoked another adage: ‘Be careful about the government as it does not strive for the good of the man but for its own gain, it pretends to love you in prosperous times but will not help in time of difficulty.’ AI accepted the traditional methods of influencing politicians at power (shtadlanut) by convincing, compromises not affecting religious affairs, as well as collaboration with the government and support for the authorities, especially in fields which did not directly affect Jewish interests.
According to AI, ‘the people of Israel’ were living in exile (Yid. golus) which end when the Messiah comes. The rebirth of the Kingdom of Israel could only occur as divine work, not human work, which is why AI rejected the Zionist ideology and viewed it as blasphemy, rebellion against God and a disaster waiting to happen. The modern concept of the Jewish nation was foreign to activists of that party, even though it did not contradict its principles. However, AI believed that it would be absurd (if not sacrilegious) to consider Jews to be the same kind of nation as, for instance, Lithuanians, Poles or Germans. Jews were a people chosen by God and, as such, they were a community of faith and mitzvot due to the Lord. Another expression that was applied was ‘people true to the Torah’ (Tojre traje fołk). The issue of national rights was outside the interest of the party, much like the issue of the national language. In Poland, Yiddish was the mother tongue (mamełoszn) whereas Hebrew was the language of the Law and the Scripture. In other words, it was a sacred language and, as such, could not be ‘commonised’ in everyday life.
The aforementioned rules suggested that the highest authorities for AI were learned rabbis described as the ‘Great Men of the Torah’ (gedolej Tora); their opinions were regarded as the highest authority. The party devised a concept of a ‘Torah position’ (daat Tora) as a tradition-based rabbinic interpretation of the Scripture on both religious and common earthly matters. In the practical activities of AI in inter-war Poland, the Gerrer Rebbe, Abraham Mordechai Alter, became an indisputable authority.
AI rejected any modernism in principle, yet in practice it used modern methods such as participation in local and parliamentary elections, participation in various coalitions (including those with its ideological opponents), propaganda work (such as publication of party press and other political publications, most of them in Yiddish), organising women, youth and workers, and reforming the system of religious education. The adoption of modern ways of political and educational work was intended to defend the principles of Judaism and tradition, yet it provoked criticism from many orthodox rabbis, especially tzadiks competing with the Ger dynasty.
Resolutions adopted at the Katowice conference (27–29 May 1912) created an organisational foundation for the global AI. A temporary committee was formed in Frankfurt. Its task was to initiate the foundation of country-level organisations of AI, which received considerable autonomy in resolving local political problems (including those concerning the internal issues of Jewish religious communes) and educational issues. This solution was designed to eliminate the danger of conflicts caused by diverging views of orthodox Jews in different countries. Three key currents were formed, each of them having a different attitude towards the modern secular civilisation, towards Jewish religious communes and some other problems,. Those were the German neoorthodoxy, Hungarian orthodoxy and the orthodox circles of Polish and Lithuanian territories. The temporary committee was also charged with organising, in August 1914, a session of the supreme global body, Kenesija Gedola (Hebr. Great Assembly). When the war broke out, the assembly met in Vienna but only in 1923. The subsequent sessions of the body were convened in 1929 (Vienna), 1937 (Mariánské Lázně), 1954 (Jerusalem) and 1964 (Jerusalem).
An important influence on the preparation for the Katowice conference and the flow of the conference came from Gerrer Rebbe, who sent his representatives and addressed a personal message to the participants. For the time being, however, the orthodox circles in Poland took a ‘wait and see’ stance (in the Russian territory such stance was provoked by the conditions of political life), whereas national AI organisations were established, above all, in Germany and Hungary.
The occupation of the Russian partition by Germans during the World War I enabled the influence of orthodox activists from Germany on those territories. In February 1916 their representatives came to Warsaw, initiating talks and conferences (such measures were supported by the Gerrer Rebbe) and establishing contact with the occupational authorities. As a result, in summer of 1916 the Polish AI organisation obtained official permission to conduct its activity. However, before that happened, as a result of spring elections, two representatives of the party-in-the-making became members of the City Council in Warsaw. The founding conference was held on 14 November 1916. The party adopted the name Agudas ha-Ortodoksim (Hebr. Union of the Orthodox), and it was changed in 1918 into Agudas Szlojmej Emunej Israel (Hebr. Union of Truly Faithful of Israel), and since 1928 – Agudas Isroel in Poland (many local party organisations continued to use the previous name).
The Polish AI organisation was formed in December 1918, following the conference in Warsaw (preceded by the publication of a daily paper, ‘Der Jid’). At that time a temporary committee with a seat in Warsaw was elected. The organisational network of the AI expanded rapidly and local branches undertook numerous actions, predominantly in the religious sphere. Among others, they took over the care function and funding of cheders, yeshivot, ritual baths, and they also supported social welfare initiatives. AI activists took part in the work of local government bodies and won parliamentary elections.
The party was headed by the Central Committee, with the Executive committee (Central Office) reporting to it. One special feature of AI was that it established Moecet Gedolej ha-Tora (Hebr. Council of Torah Sages) as the highest authority. The council, consisting of rabbis, gathered for the first time in January 1922, and then met irregularly. Its task was to assess the activities of AI and to resolve problems in the light of Halacha. In practice, political activists did not always observe its opinions. The role of the Council was undermined by disputes concerning not only rabbis’ differing views of on current issues but also conflicts of other types. For instance, the election of rabbi in Ashmyany led to a rift between the ‘Lithuanian’ and ‘Polish’ rabbis. The rivalry between the Gerrer Rebbe and his brother also caused significant problems.
In the current activity of AI, Gerrer Rebbe enjoyed particular authority and many of his supporters were in the ruling structures of the party. Another person of significant influence was rabbi Chaim Ojzer Grodzieński from. However, their authority was not recognised by Belzer Rebbe, who established a separate organisation using the historical name Machzikej ha-Dat, and Aleksander Rebe (Icchak Menachem Danziger from Aleksandrów), whose followers supported Zionists or local non-affiliated candidates in elections. Also, opposition against AI and Hasidim from Góra Kalwaria came from Lubavitcher Rebbe (Józef Icchak Sznejerson, 1880–1950). In that situation, AI had the strongest influences in central provinces (however, in the Łódź region, an important role was played by Hasidim followers of the Alesandrów tzadik), and a much weaker role elsewhere.
The day-to-day activities of AI were managed by lay activists, who asked rabbis for an opinion before making decisions. The following won a particularly strong position: Elijahu Kirszbraun, Jakub Trockenheim, Icchak Meir Lewin, and Lejb Mincberg. Local party organisations retained far-reaching freedom in their actions, and did not always follow the recommendations of central AI bodies.
Rivalry with other Jewish groupings and the ambition for AI to represent the entire people of Israel, prompted AI activists to undertake organisational initiatives in some selected circles. Also this move was viewed as a departure from tradition and triggered criticism from some orthodox rabbis. Already in 1915 the Ceirej Jehuda (Hebr. Young Jews) group was formed in Warsaw, aiming to offer a religious alternative for Jewish workers and prevent them from joining general workers’ unions. In 1922 a committee of the new organisation was formed: Poalej Emunej Isroel (Hebr. Workers True to Israel). In late May 1922 its activists organised a conference which initiated the organisation called Poalej Agudas Isroel (Hebr. Workers’ Union of Israel). Starting from 1923, the organisation published its own weekly organ called ‘Der Jidyszer Arbeter’ (subsequently ‘Der Jidyszer Arbeter Sztime’), which survived until 1939 and had seats interchangeably in Łódź or Warsaw.
Although PAI was born from the initiative of orthodox activists and it respected similar authority figures as AI, divergences soon surfaced between the two organisations. Local AI organisations were usually under the dominant influence of affluent circles (so-called szajne jidn), whereas PAI engaged in the defence of workers’ interests, often getting into conflict with its parent party in this respect. PAI demanded, among others, that orthodox Jewish entrepreneurs should employ orthodox workers, and it became increasingly critical of capitalist social relations. In turn, AI activists believed that PAI does not have enough deeply religious activists well versed in Judaism and they warned PAI against socialist influences, especially the ideology of ‘class struggle’. On some occasions supporters of the two organisations directly clashed with one another. Nevertheless, PAI remained a component of the Agudath movement.
AI also influenced the youth organisation called Ceirej Agudas Isroel (Hebr. Youth of the Union of Israel), established in 1919 against rabbis’ concerns that this might be a risky move which might distract young people from studying the Torah and Talmud. The new organisation was subordinate to AI. In 1921 the AI Central Committee appointed a youth office (with rabbis among the participants) and started to publish a journal called ‘Diglenu’ (‘Our Flag’).
The youth organisation was dependent on AI to a much greater extent than PAI, but its ranks grew increasingly discontented with the policies of their umbrella party. In particular, it was believed that AI activists did not attach sufficient attention to social issues affecting youth and to education. Members of CAI also embraced modern ways of work which were sometimes seen as a compromise for the older generation, accepted reluctantly and out of necessity. Its influences stretched over central provinces but in 1930s they also began to grew stronger in Galicia and in the Eastern borderlands. CAI gained influence among students of religious schools, and also among workers in industrial centres (e.g. in Łódź), where it competed with PAI.
The third organisation associated with AI was Bnos Agudas Yisroel (Hebr. Girls of the Union of Israel), established in 1925 at the Łódź conference. It was fully subordinated to the umbrella organisation and its activities were supervised by the local and national advisory committees (consisting of men). The organisation had no political significance and it focused on culture and education and, to some extent, also on social welfare. From the perspective of a conservative view on the role of women in the Jewish community, BAI was a serious compromise with modern ideas.
AI focused on day-to-day problems of the Jewish community in Poland, notably religious ones, but also economic and social ones. After Poland regained independence, AI declared its loyalty towards the new Polish state and fought against other groupings, especially Zionists and socialists. However, this did not prevent AI from entering into various ‘technical’ alliances during elections in order to gain a wider representation in the parliament or local government bodies. During the 1919 elections AI brought two MPs into the Sejm (from a separate list) and in 1922 it participated in the national minorities bloc (BMN), gaining six seats in the Sejm and three in the Senate. In 1928 its alliance with the Headquarters of Merchant Union (Centrala Związku Kupców) and Jidysze Fołkspartaj did not bring any seat but an AI MP got elected to the Sejm from the list of BBWR (Nonpartisan Bloc for Cooperation with the Government). In 1930 AI won two seats in the Sejm (including one from the BBWR list) and one seat in the Senate (also from the BBWR list), and in 1935 it won one seat in the Sejm (the President also appointed a senate member from AI). The 1938 elections resulted in one seat in the Sejm and one in the Senate.
In the parliament, AI representatives spoke primarily on issues related to religion. They attempted to prevent the mandatory day off on Sunday, and opposed projects banning or constraining shechita, postulated equal rights for Judaism believers and autonomy of Jewish religious communes in maters of religion and education. Moreover, they spoke in favour of economic interest of small-scale trade and crafts, e.g. by critically assessing the taxation policy. They also protested against discrimination and persecution of Jews. They also declared full loyalty towards the authorities of the Republic of Poland. One consequence of this stance was that local AI organisations provided assistance to Polish military troops during the Polish-Soviet war.
However, activities of a different kind were much more important and common, albeit not easily noticeable. AI MPs and senators undertook interventions in numerous specific cases directly affecting Jews at all levels of public administration. This was in line with the traditional ways of conduct for members of the Jewish community in the past centuries. The participation of AI representatives in town councils also played an important role.
AI believed that Jewish religious communes were a particularly important field of its activity and it attempted to prevent access from supporters of other political movements, particularly Zionists. If in the parliament and in the local government AI activists defended primarily Jewish interests against the non-Jewish environment, in religious communes AI activists stood against Jews professing other rules who often looked at orthodox activists with aversion, disdain and pity. As secularisation progressed among the Jewish community in Poland, AI activists felt increasingly lonely in a hostile environment. This feeling reflected in the phrase in golus baj jidn (in exile among Jews).
AI saw threats in particular in the Zionist idea (subsequently accepted by socialists) to transform religious communes into bodies of national Jewish autonomy. A principle was professed that if communes are to remain genuinely Jewish, their activities and the communal life must be regulated by Shulchan Aruch. In practice, the postulate of exclusively religious character of communes meant that they would be an area of exclusive influence of orthodox groupings. Since the early years of independent Poland, there was a struggle for influence in communes, and AI activists were in a favourable position thanks to the legal regulations of the structures and tasks of religious Jewish communes, dating back to the period of German occupation and gradually modified in accordance with postulates voiced by religious circles. The opponents of AI demanded democratisation of the election laws regulating elections to commune boards. While in 1919 they achieved abolishment of the curial system and voting rights for all men, they still demanded rights for women and an extension of competences of communes. They also accused conservatist circles, who dominated communal bodies, that they use those institutions for their own financial gain. AI also faced opposition from supporters of reform Judaism (mostly assimilationists), which triggered a serious conflict in the Warsaw commune when its board decided to elect rabbi Dr. Samuel Abraham Poznański member of the rabbinate.
The struggle for influences in the authorities of Jewish religious communes became particularly fierce in 1924, when the date of the first elections after the was set. While fragmentary data prove that AI got the strongest support, yet in the scale of the country it did not win the majority of seats in communal councils (most probably nearly 40%). In Warsaw and Łódź AI won a minority of seats even though it was the strongest grouping. This situation caused difficulties during the election of boards, and many councils experienced constant arguments between AI supporters and opponents. The severity of such arguments was enhanced by the fact that it was the communal council that decided about the allocation of funding, e.g. whether more funds will go to support religious or secular associations and schools.
In subsequent years a tendency was observed whereby the influence of AI declined in subsequent elections (however, in 1931 AI won the majority of seats in communal councils in Warsaw and Łódź). In many communes, opponents accused AI activists of electoral fraud. One should admit that they often used the opportunity laid down in the electoral law, which allowed them to taka away voting rights from individuals acting against Judaism. This provision was, at times, interpreted rather broadly.
Organisation of religious education was an important sphere of AI activity. During the German occupation, with the help of AI representatives from Germany, orthodox rabbis managed to prevent the introduction of common secular schooling. In order to protect themselves against such threat, a programme of reformed cheders was developed where a basic religious curriculum was supplemented, to a limited extent, with teaching of secular subjects. The first such cheder, under the name of Jesodej ha-Tora (Hebr. Torah Essentials), was established in Warsaw in 1916 as a commune-owned school (this was a new idea, and so was its organisation and the hygienic premises where the cheder was located). It received the approval of authorities and became a pattern for the system of AI schools. Those schools received the support of the Gerrer Rebbe, under certain conditions (e.g. teaching was in Yiddish, but lessons of Polish were also included). After the Polish state was formed, and common mandatory schooling was introduced, AI managed to win recognition for its cheders. However, this happened at the price of further changes in the curricula and organisation of teaching in favour of secular subjects. Subsequent modifications occurred after 1930. Those schools used subventions from religious communes and also received modest grants from the central or local government. Another helpful source was Keren ha-Tora (Hebr. The Torah Fund), established by force of a decision of the AI global conference in 1923. Moreover, traditional cheders existed in many localities.
Initially, cheders were subordinated to a dedicated education section at the AI Central Committee but in 1929 the educational organisation Chorew was founded. Upon its initiative a central religious library and a seminary for melameds (teachers) were established in Warsaw.
AI also provided support for secondary and tertiary religious schools (yeshivot). Thanks to initiative an energy of rabbi Meir Shapiro, an AI activist, yeshiva Chachmej Lublin (Yeshiva of Lublin Sages) was founded in 1930 in Lublin, where modern educational methods were applied to train orthodox rabbis who would know how to work in the contemporary world.
Development of girls’ schools, known as Bejs Jaków (House of Jacob), initiated by Sar Szenirer in Cracow in 1917, played a particular role A particular role in the educational activities undertaken by AI was played. This meant a significant break with Jewish tradition of religious education as well as a step towards modernity. However, the organisers invoked the Torah to provide arguments in support of their activity. AI followed up on the Cracow initiative and transformed it into a system of religious education for girls. In 1925 in Cracow a teachers’ seminary was established to prepare female teachers for Bejs Jaków schools, and shortly before the outbreak of World War II a vocational school for girls, called Ohel Sarah (Sarah’s Tent) was founded. Those schools co-operated with BAL.
During the Holocaust
During the first days of the war, in September 1939, orthodox circles, including AI, called Jews to engage in the defence of Poland. One symbol of this stance was the participation of Warsaw’s rabbis in the work to build defensive fortifications around the capital city. Political parties could not formally continue their activity under occupation, especially AI as it had a poorly developed organisational network, and its local organisations became more active mostly on an ad hoc basis, for campaign purposes (especially before elections). As a result, the situation of AI did not facilitate clandestine activity. On the other hand, there was some continuation of pre-war activity of the party in the territories occupied by Germans, where AI activists participated in various spheres of public life which were important for local Jewish communities. Some of them got engaged in Judenrats (Jewish councils), yet the distinctive outfits and facial hair which set orthodox Jews apart provoked harassment on the part of Germans. However, participation in institutions appointed by Germans triggered criticism, especially among members of PAI and CAI, and many an AI activist merely accepted collaboration with Judenrats by participating in institutions which were independent of those bodies. However, sources contain information about individual AI activists who played an important positive role in those bodies. Among them was Meszulam Kaminer (?–1941) in Warsaw. In particular, AI activists engaged in social assistance, health care and organisation of illegal religious schools (such schools are known to have existed in Cracow and Warsaw). AI activists also spoke to defend the observance of Halachic rules. The traditional stance of orthodox circles vis-à-vis government might have suggested that under occupation they would succumb to deportations without resistance. Fragmentary data allow us to conclude that some representatives of orthodox Jews took part in the underground activity and other forms of resistance. Rabbi Szymon Huberband in Warsaw collaborated with Oneg Shabbat and left behind precious documentation concerning the situation of orthodox circles during the Nazi occupation. Cases are known where rabbis in various localities appealed to their followers to hide from deportation. Some sources indicate that AI activists and rabbis had a negative stance on armed resistance yet others co-operated in preparations for fighting.
Foreign AI organisations (notably in the USA) made endeavours to help Jews under occupation and provided financial support (for as long as it was possible) and then trying to find ways to save at least come Jews and get them out of the German rule.
After 1944 few AI activists who survived the war took steps to renew the activity of the party in Poland. AI was not legalised since opponents viewed it as a reactionary party, hostile to any progress. However, in practice, the state authorities tolerated the unofficial activity of AI, which was possible thanks to the existence of Jewish religious congregations where AI activists played an important role, despite opposition from Mizrachim supporters, backed up by the administration. AI was not part of the Central Committee of Polish Jews or to Zionist Coordination, which is why it could not use their assistance in organising emigration. Instead, it collaborated with an organisation of orthodox rabbis from the USA, which helped many orthodox Jews to leave Poland for Palestine. Among them were students of Necach Isroel yeshiva, who left in 1946. Alongside emigration and the ever stringent restrictions of the political life in Poland, the activity of AI soon came to an end.
Agudas Isroel in the State of Israel
Although AI was, by definition, against the idea to create a Jewish state in Palestine using earthly powers, its position regarding settlement in Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel) underwent gradual transformation. The Palestinian AI organisation was established as early as 1912 but undertook practical activity from 1919 onwards. It represented ultra-orthodox circles and demanded total separation from communities organised by Zionists, which it fiercely opposed. The position changed after 1935, as subsequent waves of orthodox supporters flowed into Palestine from Poland and Germany. At that time ultra-orthodox circles established their own representation. The arrival of the Gerrer Rebbe in Palestine in 1940 entailed further changes. After 1945, because of the Holocaust, the idea of Eretz Israel became the focus of the programme as it was supposed to ‘unite 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 State of Israel’ (Izaak Breuer). In practice, at that time AI supported the postulate of the Zionist movement to establish a Jewish state when, in 1947, it received assurance that the religious status quo would be preserved in such a state.
The structure of party organs in the State of Israel was modelled after the structure existing in Poland before 1939, with the Council of Torah Sages as the supreme authority. PAI preserved its independence of AI, and spoke in favour of completely different tactics in some years. Representatives of AI and PAI participated in temporary public bodies, and then became members of parliament (they were represented by three to six MPs), and also were members of some cabinets. The essential objectives of their activity boiled down to endeavours ensuring consistent observance of Halacha in public life and development of religious schools. In the AI World Organisation Israeli politicians gained a dominant position. Beyond Israel, AI is currently active in the USA (since 1939).
- G. C. Bacon, The Politics of Tradition. Agudat Yisrael in Poland, 1916–1939, Jerusalem 1996;
- E. Mendelsohn, On Modem Jewish Politics, New York-Oxford 1993;
- M. Samet, The Beginnings of Orthodoxy, ‘Modern Judaism’ 1988 No 3.
Tomaszewski J., Żbikowski A., Żydzi w Polsce. Dzieje i kultura. Leksykon, Warszawa 2001.