Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The ‘Old Yishuv’ - Yesterday and Today

Guest Contribution By Paul Shaviv

Seated: Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld and Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Kook
I received the following submission from Paul Shaviv. I am always honored to post essays by this very knowledgeable man. It was in response to a recent post where I made a brief (but not entirely accurate) mention of the history of the Old Yishuv (Yishuv Hayashan) - as being the precursor to today’s Meah Shearim. Mr. Shaviv wanted to clear things up. I am pleased to accommodate. His essay follows.

In his posting last Friday (March 25th), Rabbi Maryles discussed the disgraceful phenomenon of the hanging of an effigy of an Israeli soldier in Meah Shearim on Purim.  He asks the question “Who are the people of Meah Shearim? To the best of my knowledge most of them are descendants of the Yishuv HaYashan – Orthodox Jews who made Alyiah (emigrated) to Israel well before the Zionist founders of the state did - and established residence in this part of Jerusalem.”

But few of the current inhabitants of Meah Shearim and other Haredi communities in Jerusalem are “descendants’ of the ‘Old Yishuv’ families; and the ‘Old Yishuv’ families themselves in many cases immigrated to Israel simultaneously with all other Zionist ‘Aliyyot’ (including many before and after the Second World War, and after 1956). 

The characterization of the 'Old Yishuv' ("Hayishuv hayashan") as an ancient community of twinkly-eyed pietists is, I am afraid, a totally romanticized picture of a complex (and fascinating) community.  It is, broadly speaking, in the same category as claiming that 'everyone in Eastern Europe was frum and learned'.  (The rather sinister, underlying implication in both is that were it not for ‘Zionists, or Reformers’ or other unspecified malevolent agents, these worlds could have continued undisturbed and unchanged for ever….  While it is seductive to ignore reality and history, and whether you approve or disapprove of change, unfortunately such views are delusional.)

The Old Yishuv was the subject of an extended study I did as part of my graduate work at Oxford many years ago. You can read what I wrote here .

In brief:  the 'Old Yishuv' comprised many elements, Ashkenazi and Sephardi.  In the nineteenth century, many of the Ashkenazim were indeed Perushim, the descendants of the Gr"a, but they were a rather turbulent crowd, as Prof. Arie Morgenstern has shown.  For example, there was a widely entertained anticipation of the coming of the Moshiach in 1840 (= 5600) - yes, among Misnagdim!  The Messiah's non-appearance resulted in some Jerusalemites converting to Christianity, under the influence of the Anglican Mission, with whom the Perushim had intricate connections.

Others – connected to the influential Hungarian Kollel – were followers of the Hatam Sofer, who believed strongly in resettling Eretz Yisrael as a way of ‘normalizing’ Jewish existence – arguments which are precursors of later Zionist ideology.  

The Rav of the Old Yishuv was R'Shmuel Salant, who passed away in 1909.   

But - crucially -- the Old Yishuv was, broadly speaking, not unsympathetic to modernity and practical efforts to improve the productivity and education of the Jewish population.  Note that the first attempt to found an agricultural colony in Petach Tikvah (1878) was by Hungarians of the Old Yishuv – even BEFORE the First Aliyyah.  ‘Modern’ schools were established in Jerusalem in the second half of the nineteenth century -- not without controversy, but they had students!   The Bnai Brith Library  (1892) was supported by the modernist circles of the Old Yishuv.  The proposal to teach Arabic in the Etz Haim Yeshivah was supported by R’Shmuel Salant, and opposed by the Maharil Diskin (see below).  The differing perspectives were clearly summarized by R’Shmuel Salant himself – ‘Arabic is not German and Jerusalem is not Berlin’ – in other words, Arabic, the language of Jerusalem and Levantine commerce, was not the gateway to threatening Enlightenment that German represented in Europe.

UNTIL -- the arrival of R'Moshe Yehoshua Leib Diskin in 1878.  Maharil Diskin (and his wife - another story) came from Rumania-Hungary, and brought with him the battles of Europe against modernity and secularization.  He saw in Ottoman-ruled Jerusalem a refuge of a traditional, pre-modern society which would be impervious to the cultural and religio-political struggles of Europe – certainly including Hungary, where, again, contrary to current belief, Reform and Neolog had made significant inroads. 

With contemporarily-documented violence (see, for example, the memoirs of David Yellin), he and his followers conquered the Old Yishuv. (One Shabbat morning his followers entered the shul of R’Shmuel Salant in the Old City, smashed it to pieces and threw the remnants of furniture out of the windows.)  His followers, including his successor, the impressive figure of R’Yosef Haim Sonnenfeld (1848-1932) and the fascinating figure of R’Moshe Blau (1885 – 1946 -- brother of R’Amram) founded the ‘Palestinian’ (= Eretz Yisrael) branch of Agudah.

But no society could be immune to world events.  The defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War simply blew away the protective umbrella enjoyed by religious minorities. 

The First, Second and subsequent aliyyot considerably outnumbered and overtook the Old Yishuv, whose influence was in any case confined to Jerusalem.  Also, after the First World War, many left the Old Yishuv, either to emigrate (note the number of klei kodesh in English-speaking lands who were originally emigres of the Old Yishuv) or to join the ‘new’ Yishuv.   The Old Yishuv itself was divided regarding the Balfour Declaration and the rebuilding of Eretz Yisrael – reflecting, to a degree, the split between the ‘Palestinian’ and the European Agudah.

The relationships between the Jerusalem Haredim and the Zionist Yishuv in the period between the two World Wars was fraught with tension, but also had a fundamentally ambiguity.  (Authoritatively described by Dr. Menachem Friedman.)   The Haredim guardedly welcomed the strengthening of the Jewish infrastructure and society in Eretz Yisrael, while disapproving of its character and secular leadership. 

All this changed with the rise of Nazism.  After 1933, the Agudah both in Eretz Yisrael and Europe supported Jewish immigration to Israel.  Moshe Blau, as shown in a wonderful photograph, represented the Agudah at the  St. James’ Roundtable Conference called by the British Government in early 1939 to discuss Jewish immigration.  He was part of the Zionist delegation led by Chaim Weizmann.

In or about the early 1940’s, however, the extremist faction of the Palestinian Agudah, headed by Amram Blau, declared opposition to Jewish independence (really – opposition to Jewish secular leadership), and formed a group known initially as the ‘Chevrat Chayyim’, and soon after as ‘Neturei Karta’.  But most of the Old Yishuv fought for the Haganah and the Lehi in the War of Independence.  R’Itche Meir Lewin, Agudah leader, was a signatory to the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel.

So the story is not at all as simplistic as often portrayed, as a clash between the pious, passive awaiters of Messianic deliverance and the activist Zionist pioneers.  

Both the ‘Old Yishuv’ and the ‘New Yishuv’ were products of history, and reacted to it.  Unfortunately, we live in an anti-historical Orthodox community, where real, detailed history is barely known, if at all, and is often reduced to simplistic and blatantly inaccurate ‘false memory’, designed to reinforce contemporary religious-political battles.  Censorship and deliberate falsification feature prominently in the accounts of the personalities and incidents involved.  

The nuanced positions of the Agudah have given way to widespread adoption of attitudes closer to (and in some cases more extreme than) the ‘classic’ Neturei Karta, together with adoption of revisionist historical narrative.  (For example, I don’t believe that R’Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld or Amram Blau would have approved of the hanging effigy of the Israeli soldier.)

The story of the complex relationship between intensive Orthodoxy (including the history of the Old Yishuv) and modernity in all its forms (including the Jewish National Revival), awaits its comprehensive chronicler.  In the meantime, here is a small window onto history for the benefit of the ‘Emes ve’emunah’ devotees!

 Paul Shaviv, after many years of heading Jewish Day Schools, is a management consultant for independent schools and NFP’s.