The high point, in many ways, of Agudath Israel of America’s mission to Washington last month, in which I was privileged to participate as a delegate from Wisconsin, was a luncheon in the Senate office building.
There, numerous members of Congress came and spoke to us. Each legislator discussed his or her support for Israel and the Jewish people in this time of crisis.
After the event, I spoke with a reporter from an Anglo-American weekly who expressed his surprise at the pro-Israel rhetoric and the crowd’s enthusiastic response, “just like any other Jewish organization.”
The remark set me thinking: Why should anyone consider it exceptional or unusual that Agudath Israel is supportive of our embattled brothers and sisters in the Holy Land?
As a grass-roots organization that strives to represent the interests of Jews who take Torah learning and observance very seriously, the commandments of ahavath Yisrael (love for one’s fellow Jew) and pikuach nefesh (saving lives) loom large on our agenda
Today, 5.5 million of our Jewish brothers and sisters inhabit the land of Israel. The commandment of ahavath Yisrael demands that we love them regardless of the color and shape of their headgear, or whether they wear any headgear at all.
For that reason alone, we must support Israel. Add to it the fact that in vastly disproportionate numbers to other segments of the American Jewish community, our relatives and children make their homes in Israel, and it becomes doubly vital.
How could the perception have arisen that it is otherwise? Three considerations came to mind:
• Agudath Israel’s historical stance as a non-Zionist organization.
• The recent controversy over Agudath Israel’s non-participation in the rally in Washington in support of Israel in April.
• The prominent presence of a tiny, vocal minority of Jews in traditional garb in pro-Palestinian demonstrations who resemble some of the Agudath Israel’s constituents. They include the Neturei Karta, featured in the July 19 Chronicle.
It is true that from its founding at a meeting of prominent rabbis at Kattowitz, Germany, in 1912, Agudath Israel has been opposed to the Zionist movement. The reasons for this are too complex to be dealt with here.
But this did not mean that the organization is or was opposed to Jews settling in the land of Israel. G-d forbid!
The pre-Holocaust world Agudath Israel stood upon four mighty pillars: That of German Orthodoxy, represented by, for example, the Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch community of Frankfurt am Main and the Berlin seminary of the great Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer; the great yeshivoth of Lithuania, their adherents and students; the vibrant, predominantly Hasidic Polish Jewry; and a branch in the land of Israel.
With the founding of the Israeli state in 1948, everything changed. The Agudath Israel’s rabbinical leaders were asked whether or not the organization should participate in the Israeli political process. The answer, in a decision written by Rabbi Reuven Grozovsky, was an unequivocal yes.
As the result of that decision over 50 years ago, Agudath Israel in Israel is an Israeli political party and has participated in every election in Israel. Currently part of the United Torah Judaism bloc, it has at times been part of the governing coalition.
This decision leads into the matter of the April rally. Orthodoxy is characterized by the rule of halacha (Jewish law) and the requirement, where doubts exist, to seek guidance from competent rabbinical authorities. Agudath Israel of America is proud to be governed in such matters by an august board of rabbis known as the Council of Torah Sages, representing most of the greatest Torah scholars in America today.
Since, for various reasons, the council was unable to arrive at a consensus concerning the rally, they took the unusual step of leaving the matter of participation in the rally up to each individual’s conscience.
A week later, Agudath Israel did endorse participation in a prayer rally sponsored by a wide coalition of Orthodox organizations. I encouraged my son to attend both rallies.
As for those people in Hasidic dress guilty of the desecration of G-d’s Name, of demonstrating with those who support and excuse the murderers of so many Jews in Israel — if you want their definition of ahavath Yisrael, you will have to ask them. They resemble Agudath Israel’s constituents outwardly only.
Rabbi Avner Zarmi is vice president of the Wisconsin chapter of Agudath Israel of America.