The current debate on enlisting yeshiva students is one of the more salient expressions of Agudat Israel's dilemma between integration and seclusion. This year, the movement is celebrating its 100th anniversary.
Agudat Israel was founded by Orthodox European Jews in response to three developments its members viewed as a threat: the Jewish Reform movement, the Bund labor movement and Zionism. The Orthodox considered the Reform movement as a form of assimilation, and as a way of integrating into general Christian society without converting. They refused to accept the Reform stream as a legitimate Jewish movement, and came to the conclusion that the Reform movement's growing popularity necessitated the construction of a counter-organization.
The Bund was a Jewish socialist party that turned its back on religion, considered Judaism a cultural community, spoke Yiddish and supported the integration of Jews in eastern Europe, lending support to social struggles while maintaining cultural individuality.
The Zionist movement, however, posed a different kind of threat. While both the Reform movement and the Bund advocated for Jews to fully integrate into general society, the haredim viewed Zionism as challenging the idea of waiting until God decided that the Jewish people had repented long enough, and that it was time for the messiah to return the Jews to their homeland. Zionism pushed the day of redemption further away while encouraging a secular way of life.
The haredim were concerned by the fact that several Orthodox rabbis worked with the secular Jews who led the Zionist movement: The Mizrachi movement, a spiritual center within Zionism, was established 10 years prior to the founding of Agudat Israel. Mizrachi was headed by rabbis such as Yaacov Reines, who joined the Zionist movement. They saw themselves as religious-nationalists and identified with the Zionistic idea of founding a Jewish state in Israel. Mizrachi members disagreed with Zionist leaders' educational and cultural stances, but chose to fight for their beliefs from within a united Jewish movement, as secular members joined at the beginning of the last century. The haredim saw this collaboration as a dangerous development and tried to fight against it.
In September 1911, the Mizrachi movement suffered a great crisis, when it was decided in the 10th Zionist Congress that the Zionist movement would also deal with issues of culture and education. Several Orthodox rabbis quit the Zionist Federation and the Mizrachi movement, and started looking for a new home. They joined haredi rabbis and founded Agudat Israel in 1912. The new, completely Orthodox movement had no need to promote its religious agenda from within, and instead focused on fighting the perceived negative developments in the Jewish world.
Some members of Agudat Israel saw the Reformists as their biggest problem, but a considerable group within the movement saw Zionism as its most serious threat, since it separated religion and nationality, and wished to establish a state based on a national affinity, and not necessarily a religious one. While Reform did not separate religion from nationality, Zionists held this division at the base of their beliefs.
From its inception, Agudat Israel deliberated on what its official stand towards Israel should be. Its first president, Rabbi Yaakov Rosenheim, showed a clear predilection to Poland's Jewish community and other large concentrations in the Diaspora, while on the opposing side stood Rabbi Isaac Breuer, who held Israel as an ultimate goal, and sought to prepare Jews for the establishment of a halachic state in Israel.
The haredi community in Israel at the time was greatly conflicted between cooperating with the Zionists and refusing to acknowledge them. At first, they were willing to take part in the settlement movement and even registered for Knesset Israel, the National Council that served as government for Israeli Jews under the British Mandate of Palestine. They went as far as participating in the council's first elections, but then retired from Knesset Israel and started a separate community, which conducted a separate dialogue with the British Mandate and certain Arab powers in the land.
Agudat Israel's dilemma increased in urgency, when deciding whether or not to cooperate with the Jewish establishment. The movement started leaning more towards collaboration when the Admor (Hassidic leader) of Gora, Avraham Mordechai Alter, together with his son-in-law, Rabbi Yitzhak-Meir Levin. came to Israel.
Shortly after their arrival, Rabbi Levin was elected president of Agudat Israel. It was he who received from then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Rabbi Yehuda Leib Hacohen Maimon the famous status quo agreement, which promised haredi Jews that the future state of Israel would respect them on a number of religious issues. Levin, who served as welfare minister during three terms before resigning in 1952 (over the decision to recruit women into the Israeli army), was the first and last minister to belong to Agudat Israel, even though the party has been part of most governments ever since the Likud first rose to power in 1977.
This duality expresses the ambiguity that is at the base of Agudat Israel's perspective: It views Zionism as a sin and feels contempt for the idea of a secular Jewish state, yet it does not see itself as joining forces with extreme haredi groups that fight against Zionism. Agudat Israel does not wish to take full responsibility for what goes on in Israel, but does want to be a part of the mechanism that distributes the country's resources, so as to ensure the financial well-being of the sector it represents.
Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah, which grew out of Agudat Israel, acts as a religious authority that dictates the behavior of their Knesset members and deputy ministers, even if the latter do have some influence on their rabbis. When Agudat Israel joined forces with ultra-orthodox party Degel Hatorah, lead by spiritual leader Rabbi Menachem Shack, it became a union between those who were part of the Hassidic movement, and those who opposed it.
The new party, called Yahadut Hatorah (United Torah Judaism), nevertheless allows both original sectors to remain distinct from one another, while the common party acts solely as a confederation for the two powerful groups, which are both not content with a Jewish state erected by mortals. They create on a daily basis the wheel of participation in a system they are fundamentally opposed to: Their children do not serve in the army, they do not recognize the Israeli flag or national anthem as their own, they prefer to speak in Yiddish and do not feel obliged to stand during the Memorial Day sirens.
Will the second century of Agudat Israel bring with it a clear decision? Will the Israeli Haredi community's natural growth force it to take a more substantial participation, by carrying more of the national burden? Will political figures within the haredi community decide to take on more ministerial responsibilities? Will they cease to view Zionism as their enemy?