Monday, December 29, 2008

The Embarrassment that is Agudah in Israel

Yet another gutsy article from Jonathan Rosenblum. This time it is in the Jewish Observer where Jonathan takes to task the Israeli Agudah and contrasts it with it with the American Agudah.

For those who don’t know these are two separate entities. Both are products of the same philosophy and are an outgrowth of the original movement founded in Europe almost a century ago (1912).

Their guiding principles are the same. But the two entities could hardly be more different. They both proclaim to be of the philosophy that seeks to combine all of Orthodoxy under one umbrella organization led by the greatest Torah figures of the generation. But that’s as far as it goes. Their differences are far greater than the similarities.

I have said this before. The social activist side of Agudah in America has one of the most effective lobbying agencies for Orthodoxy in America. They have cultivated good relations with both the legislative and executive branches of government and have over the years been responsible for some very important legislation as it pertains to all Orthodox Jews- no matter what their Hashkafa.

By contrast Israel’s Agudah is little more than a political party interested in how much money they can get from the government. They do that by 'selling' their votes in the Knesset to the ruling coalition - that needs their vote on their own legislation. They get 'paid' in earmarks to the budget that goes to the institutions of their choice.

These ‘earmark’ - pork barrel -additions to the budgets are important because the state coffers are many times greater than the philanthropies from which they recieve donations. The constant wrangling for dollars among the factions in the Charedi parties is their most visible aspect . For decades individual members of the Knesset had the authority to dole out government cash to their personally designated organizations and institutions.

This factionalism has resulted in giving up Jerusalem to a secular mayor. They had a Charedi mayor: Uri Lupoliansky. He was popular among all Jews in the city – religious and non religious alike. The odds are he would have won handily.

But he didn’t run because of a power sharing agreement. The two main factions each had their own candidate and the agreement was that the two factions would take turns sharing power. When Mr. Lulpoliansky’s turn as mayor was up - the other faction got their turn. Of course their candidate, Rabbi Meir Porush did not have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the election. But it didn’t matter. That faction wanted it’s turn.

I’m told that Rav Elyashiv was approached about whether they should run Mr. Lupoliansky anyway. He said, no. He keeps his promises. It would be a Chilul HaShem, he said, to break them.

The question is, why make this power-sharing deal in the first place? I guess they think in terms of ‘strength in numbers’. The more united they are as a voting block in the Knesset, the more government funding they can get.

It is truly a shame that the religious parties in Israel are so divided. I don’t know how many religious members there are in the Knesset but I’ll bet that if all Shomer Shabbos Jews would combine they would have one of most powerful parties in Israel. But let’s leave that alone for now. The Religious Zionist parties and religious members of the secular parties are not about to join Agudah. But even had Agudah itself remained united it would have been huge.

How divided is Agudah? It was always divided. In 1988 Degel Hatorah was created by Rav Shach –slitting off from Agudah. It left the Agudah in the hands of Chasidic Rebbes - primarily of the Gerrer Rebbe if I recall correctly. As Jonathan points out - until then Agudah was little more than a collection of highly distinct factions. And before that Sepahrdim broke off – under Rav Ovadia Yosef to found their own political party: Shas.

I guess if you have three Jews there has to be four parties.

Degel has since re-united with Agudah but as mentioned earlier but on condition there would be a power rotating agreement. That caused them to lose Jerusalem to a secular Jew.

I recall that Bnei Brak had a similar power sharing arrangement. In their case either side would have won the election – no secular candidate would even dream of running for mayor of Bnei Brak. But the sad thing was that a proven effective mayor – highly rated by even secular standards - was forced to hand over the reins to an untested mayor simply because it was his turn. Is that any way to run a city?

Nothing demonstrates the shambles of the Agudah in Israel more than the mayoral election. One of the biggest figures in Agudah is the Gerrer Rebbe openly opposed the candidacy of Rabbi Meir Porush. His Chasidim were actually encouraged to vote for the secular candidate. I doubt that Mr. Porush would have won even of the Gerrer Chasidim would have voted for him. But this shows just how counterproductive the Agudah in Israel is. This is ironic considering the growth of the Orthodox demographic there. Their population grows they had a winning candidate – a successful and popular incumbent mayor - and they nonetheless chose to ‘snatch defeat from the jaws of victory’.

Not that I think the newly elected secular mayor, Nir Birkat, will necessarily be a bad for religious Jews in Jerusalem. He may very well turn out to be a good mayor who will serve all the citizens of Jerusalem. The now vilified Ehud Olmert in fact had a great relationship with the Charedi population when he was mayor. Birkat may very well do the same thing - if he wants a second term. What better way to get it than to please the largest single demographic in Jerusalem?

Agudah in Israel is an embarrassment. They have no grass roots support. Almost all the active members are paid employees of one or another of their factions. Even the average Charedi in Israel has little if anything to do with it. The best known members of Agudah are its politicians who are seen mostly as wrangling for government dollars.

That one of their own living in Israel, Jonathan Rosenblum, recognizes this and publishes it in an Agudah publication is pretty amazing.